“Super Earth” Only 14 Light Years Away

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Artist’s impression of an exoplanet. PC:NASA

14 light years? Really? That’s almost right next door. I know, it still translates to about 80 trillion miles, but think of this: Mars is about 140 million miles from us. So, in perspective, 14 light years is not too much farther, is it?

On to the news: A team of Australian astronomers has spotted three exoplanets orbiting Wolf 1061, a red dwarf ‘M-type’ star. One of the planets is in the habitable zone.

Wolf 1061 is a red dwarf star located in the Ophiuchus constellation, only 14 light years away from Earth. The three exoplanets discovered orbiting this star are between 1.3 and 5.2 times the size of our own, according to the team led by Dr. Duncan Wright of the University of New South Wales.

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PC: UNSW

“We have found strong Doppler signals in data for Wolf 1061 that indicate the presence of three planets,” the team wrote in a paper to be published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. “All of the planets are of sufficiently low mass that they may be rocky in nature.”

The three are Wolf 1061b, 1.36 Earth minimum-mass planet with an orbital period of 4.888 days; Wolf 1061c, a 4.25 Earth minimum-mass planet with orbital period of 17.867 days; and Wolf 1061d, a 5.21 Earth minimum-mass planet with orbital period of 67.274 d.

“The middle planet, Wolf 1061c, sits within the Goldilocks zone where it might be possible for liquid water – and maybe even life – to exist,” said Dr Wright, the lead author of the paper. The larger outer planet, Wolf 1061d, falls just outside the outer boundary of the habitable zone, while the smaller inner planet, Wolf 1061b, is too close to the star to be habitable.

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PS: UNSW

So, the ‘Super Earth,’ Wolf 1061c, possibly has a mass 4 times that of our planet, and orbits its star every 18 days at a much closer distance to its star than Earth. If it were in our Solar System, Wolf 1061c would be too hot to sustain life, but the red dwarf Wolf 1061 is much cooler than our Sun.

“This discovery is especially exciting because the star is extremely calm,” Wright said. “Most red dwarfs are very active, giving out X-ray bursts and super flares, which spells doom for any life, given the habitable zone is so close into these stars.”

He also said that this proximity to the star means that Wolf 1061c is likely to be ‘tidally locked’, which means one side will always be facing its star. The side of Wolf 1061c facing the star will always be lit up and very hot, while the other side will be always dark and very cold.

Which means, humans, if they were to live on Wolf 1061c, would have to survive in the ‘twilight zone,’ the area where permanent darkness meets permanent light.

Does not sound like a cozy place to live! Maybe the next find will be better?

Small terrestrial planets are now known to be abundant in our Milky Way Galax, but the ones discovered so far are hundreds or thousands of light years away. One exception is Gliese 667, a potentially habitable exoplanet located 22 light-years from Earth in the constellation Scorpius.

Scientists are excited because of the close proximity of the Wolf 1061 system, which provides a good opportunity to find out more about the planet’s habitability.

I’m exited because this is only the beginning of our discoveries. There could be many other habitable planets in the near proximity that we have not found yet. Fingers crossed.

S.G. Basu is an aspiring potentate of a galaxy or two. She plots and plans with wondrous machines, cybernetic robots, time travelers and telekinetic adventurers, some of whom escape into the pages of her books. Once upon a previous life on planet Earth, S.G. Basu trained to be an engineer, and her interest in science and her love of engineering shows up time and again in her books.

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Posted in interesting stuffs, science news

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