Courtesy of Alex Boersma
Talia Avakian
December 06, 2017

Researchers have just discovered a new planet 111 light years away — and in the process they realized a previously discovered planet nearby might be what's known as a "Super Earth."

Using data collected by the European Southern Observatory, researchers from Canada’s University of Toronto and Université de Montréal were studying the mass and density of the little-known planet K2-18b, which was discovered back in 2015. In the process, they discovered that the planet also has a massive neighbor.

"Being able to measure the mass and density of K2-18b was tremendous, but to discover a new exoplanet was lucky and equally exciting," Ryan Cloutier, the lead author of the study, said in a statement.

Orbiting the red-dwarf star of K2-18, both of the planets sit 111 light years away from Earth, within the Leo constellation.

The researchers were trying to determine what K2-18b's surface is made out of in their study. To do so, researchers used the La Silla Observatory in Chile, pulling data sets from the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), which can detect even very tiny planets that surround stars.

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While researchers were unable to determine exactly what the planet is composed of, they were able to narrow it down to two options: either the planet is made of up mostly rocky terrain, making it similar to Earth on a bigger scale, or water that sits covered in a thick layer of ice. 

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For this reason, they concluded the exoplanet could be a "scaled-up version of Earth."

According to Cloutier, while the current data does not provide scientists with enough information to be able to narrow those two options down, using the James Webb Space Telescope, which launches in 2019, will allow them to be able to probe the atmosphere and get closer to an answer.

And if it is indeed a "Super Earth," since it orbits in the what's known as the habitable zone around its star — not too hot, not too cold – it might, just might, have water and other conditions for life.

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