An Earth-sized world 11 light-years from home may be our next best shot to find alien life

Eleven light-years away, an Earth-sized world orbits a cool, red star, and it may be just right for life.

The planet, known as Ross 128b, completes an orbit of its star, Ross 128, about once every 10 days, according to new research published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

While a 10-day orbit might bake a world around a sun-like star, Ross 128 isn't at all like the sun. 

The relatively nearby red dwarf star is small and cool, so Ross 128b's 10-day orbit could actually make it ideal for life to develop. 

On top of that, Ross 128 is thought to be a pretty quiet star, meaning that it doesn't shoot off powerful atmosphere-stripping flares very often, making Ross 128b an even better prospect for life.

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"I think the 1.5-degree [2.7-degree F] target is out of reach as a long-term goal," Schmidt said. He estimated that we will blow past that by about 2030.

(Photo via REUTERS/Stephane Mahe)

But Schmidt is more optimistic about keeping temperatures from rising more than 3.6 degrees F, or 2 degrees C. That's the increase the UN hopes to avoid.

(Photo via REUTERS/Vincent Kessler)

Let's assume that we land somewhere between those two targets. At the end of this century, we'd be looking at a world that is on average about 3 degrees Fahrenheit above where we are now.

(Photo via NASA)

But average surface temperature alone doesn't paint a full picture. Temperature anomalies — how much the temperature of a given area deviates from what would be "normal" in that region — will swing wildly.

Source: Business Insider

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For example, the temperature in the Arctic Circle soared above freezing for one day in 2016 — that's extraordinarily hot for the arctic. Those types of abnormalities will start happening a lot more.

Source: Washington Post

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That means years like 2016, which had the lowest sea-ice extent on record, will become more common. Summers in Greenland could become ice-free by 2050.

Source: Journal of Advances in Modeling Earth Systems

(Photo via NASA Goddard Flickr)

In the summer of 2012, 97% of the Greenland Ice Sheet's surface started to melt. That's typically a once-in-a-century occurrence, but we could see extreme surface melt like that every six years by end of the century.

Source: Climate CentralNational Snow & Ice Data Center

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On the bright side, ice in Antarctica will remain relatively stable, making minimal contributions to sea-level rise.

Source: Nature

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However, unexpected ice shelf collapses could surprise researchers with extra sea-level rise.

Source: Business Insider

(Photo by John Sonntag/IceBridge/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

Even in our best-case scenarios, oceans are on track to rise 2 to 3 feet by 2100. That could displace up to 4 million people.

Source: NASATime

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Oceans absorb about one third of all carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, causing them to warm and become more acidic. Rising temperatures will therefore cause oceans to acidify more around the globe.

Source: International Geosphere-Biosphere Program

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In the tropics, that means nearly all coral reef habitats could be devastated. Under our best-case scenario, half of all tropical coral reefs are threatened.

Source: International Geosphere-Biosphere Program

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And even if we curb emissions, summers in the tropics could see a 50% increase their extreme-heat days by 2050. Farther north, 10% to 20% of the days in a year will be hotter.

Source: Environmental Research Letters

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Without controlling our emissions (a business-as-usual scenario), the tropics would stay at unusually hot temperatures all summer long. In the temperate zones, 30% or more of the days would have temperatures that we currently consider unusual.

Source: Environmental Research Letters

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Even a little bit of warming will likely strain water resources. In a 2013 paper, scientists projected that the world will start to see more intense droughts more often. Left unchecked, climate change may cause severe drought across 40% of all land — double what it is today.

Source: PNAS

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And then there's the weather. If the extreme El Niño event of 2015-2016 was any indication, we're in for more natural disasters — storm surges, wildfires, and heat waves are on the menu for 2070 and beyond.

Source: Environment360

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Right now, humanity is standing on a precipice. If we ignore the warning signs, we could end up with what Schmidt envisions as a "vastly different planet" — roughly as different as our current climate is from the most recent ice age.

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Or we can innovate. Many best-case scenarios assume we'll reach negative emissions by 2100 — that is, absorb more than we emit through carbon-capture technology.

Source: The Guardian

(Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

Schmidt says the Earth in 2100 will be somewhere between "a little bit warmer than today and a lot warmer than today." On a planet-wide scale, that difference could mean millions of lives saved, or not.

(Photo credit NASA / SPL / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

That said, it's still not exactly clear if Ross 128b is habitable.

"While the scientists involved in this discovery consider Ross 128b to be a temperate planet, uncertainty remains as to whether the planet lies inside, outside, or on the cusp of the habitable zone, where liquid water may exist on a planet’s surface," the European Southern Observatory (ESO) said in a statement announcing the discovery.

Ross 128's quiet nature makes it special.

Proxima Centauri, which is also a red dwarf 4 light-years from Earth that plays host to its own Earth-sized world, might be a bit too active to allow life to develop nearby over the course of billions of years. But it seems that Ross 128 may not have that problem.

Plus, astronomers of the future may have the chance to study Ross 128 and its possibly habitable planet from very close range.

Right now, the star is speeding toward Earth's part of space. According to the ESO, in about 79,000 years, the object will become the second-closest star from Earth (after the sun), moving closer than Proxima Centauri.

During the coming decades, scientists hope to use powerful tools to peer deeply into the atmospheres of planets outside our solar system in order to see exactly which worlds may or may not be habitable. 

The ESO's Extremely Large Telescope, for example, will be able to look for chemicals in the atmosphere of other planets that could be indicators of life, according to the organization, and NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, slated for launch in 2019, will also have the ability to parse out the compositions of alien atmospheres.

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