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Theoretical astronomy

This puts the planet outside the traditional “habitable zone,” where conditions are thought to be ripe for life. But Teske pointed out that microbes are resilient creatures; if there is water on the planet and if other necessary ingredients are present, it’s feasible that organisms might lurk in an ocean beneath the ice.

Yet much about the planet around Barnard’s Star remains uncertain. Astronomers aren’t sure if it’s rocky like Earth or built of gas and ice, like Neptune. They know it must be at least three times as massive as Earth, but it could be even larger.

They aren’t even 100 percent certain the planet is there, Ribas noted. The research pushed the limits of the radial velocity detection technique, which becomes more difficult the farther a planet is from its star. Mathematical models suggest there is still a 0.8 percent chance that Barnard’s Star’s apparent wobble is caused by some other factor, like sunspots. For that reason, the exoplanet is deemed a “candidate,” rather than a confirmed discovery.

“Difficult detections such as this one warrant confirmation by independent methods and research groups,” Rodrigo Diaz, an astronomer at the University of Buenos Aires who was not involved in the research, wrote in a commentary for Nature. But if it’s confirmed, the “remarkable planet” would give “a key piece in the puzzle of planetary formation and evolution,”