Imagine a distant planet where life could potentially thrive – but perhaps only on one particularly bright side.
Astronomers have announced the discovery of a world beyond our solar system, an exoplanet named Wolf 1069 b. Their discovery, recently published in Science Journal Astronomy & Astrophysics(Opens in a new window), intrigues exoplanet research for several reasons:
Wolf 1069 has about the same mass as Earth. It’s rare. Among thousands of confirmed exoplanets, “only about 1.5% have masses less than two Earth masses,” according to a publication (Opens in a new window) from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, a research institute in Germany. Importantly, we know from experience that rocky, Earth-like worlds can create conditions that could allow life to survive.
Rarely again, Wolf 1069 b orbits in the “habitable zone” of its solar system, ie a special region where liquid water can exist on the surface.
According to current knowledge of researchers (this may change with more observations), the planet is not polluted with harmful radiation. Wolf 1069 b orbits a star (Wolf 1069) that is smaller and cooler than the Sun, allowing the world to orbit close enough and still be a potentially habitable world. The planet revolves around its small star every 15.6 days!
A weird quirk: Like the moon, Wolf 1069 b is “tidally locked” to its orbit, meaning the same side always faces the red dwarf star. As a result, the “day side” of the planet is always day and the night side is always night.
So if you were on the star side of Wolf 1069 b, a year would be about 16 days long, the sun wouldn’t set, the gravity might be similar to that on Earth, and you might even find that water is flowing . the surface ripples.
SEE ALSO: There are mysterious “super-Earths” all over the galaxy.
Importantly, there’s still no evidence of life in the universe beyond Earth – although there are some exciting contenders for possible habitability in our own solar system. “A habitable planet can be habitable but not inhabited,” Ravi Kumar Kopparapu, an exoplanet researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, told Mashable earlier this year.
Search for an Earth-sized planet
Finding a world the size of Earth is a big challenge.
Many exoplanets are found by observing whether a star dims as one of these extremely distant planets passes in front of it. However, many exoplanets discovered so far are much larger than Earth, making this faint eclipse “easier” to find. Scientists used a different strategy to find Wolf 1069 b, a small planet. They looked for tiny but periodic changes in the light from the star, a technique called the “radial velocity method.” This can provide clues that a planet is shooting at its star. Next, scientists calculate Earth’s mass and other information by measuring how much the light from the star changes.
A graphic showing three different exoplanets (Wolf 1069 b above) orbiting in the habitable zones of their solar systems (green area). Source: MPIA graphic department / J. Neidel
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In the vast Universe, Wolf 1069 b is a relatively close Earth-sized discovery, only about 31 light-years away. This makes it a rare find and an exciting planetary candidate for studying biosignatures that are evidence of past or present life. “Due to its favorable habitability prospects, it belongs to an illustrious small group of targets such as Proxima Centauri b and TRAPPIST-1 e looking for biosignatures,” noted the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy.
Huge future telescopes will search for these possible biosignatures. what is there?
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