A nearby planet might have an oxygen-rich atmosphere — that’s huge news

Dana Berry

A planet called GJ 1132b that sits just 39 light-years away from Earth probably has a thin, oxygen-filled atmosphere according to new research accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

The researchers think the planet has so much oxygen because it's orbiting so close to its host star. At just 1.4 million miles from the star, the planet gets bombarded with ultraviolet light. That UV light splits water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen is light so it escapes out into space, but oxygen is heavier and remains in the atmosphere, according to the Harvard-Smithsonian Center For Astrophysics.

A sign of life? Unfortunately, in this case, the oxygen-rich atmosphere doesn't mean we should expect to find life there. 

"On cooler planets, oxygen could be a sign of alien life and habitability. But on a hot planet like GJ 1132b, it's a sign of the exact opposite — a planet that's being baked and sterilized," Harvard astronomer Laura Schaefer said in a statement.

An illustration of GJ 1132b  Dana Berry / Skyworks Digital / CfA

Researchers think it's possible that a giant pool of magma exists on the surface of the planet that absorbs some of the oxygen. Most of the rest of the oxygen eventually gets heated and radiates into space. 

What does it mean? Even though the cycle of oxygen on GJ 1132b isn't conducive to life, the discovery is still a big deal.

"This planet might be the first time we detect oxygen on a rocky planet outside the solar system," co-author Robin Wordsworth said in the statement.

If there is oxygen on the planet, we might be able to detect it with larger telescopes that are under construction right now. 

Studying GJ 1132b might help us learn more about Venus, which exhibits some of the same characteristics.