The closest habitable planet outside our solar system

The sky area in the constellation of Ophiucus near the red dwarf star Wolf 1061 which includes the impressive, but unrelated, star cluster Messier 104. Wolf 1061 is 14 light years away. Image: The Aladin sky atlas developed at CDS, Strasbourg Observatory, France

A planet orbiting a star 14 light years away could be the closest habitable planet from Earth, according to Australian astronomers.

The planet, more than four times the mass of the Earth, is one of three discovered around a red dwarf star called Wolf 1061.

“It is a particularly exciting find because all three planets are of low enough mass to be potentially rocky and have a solid surface, and the middle planet, Wolf 1061c, sits within the ‘Goldilocks’ zone where it might be possible for liquid water — and maybe even life — to exist,” says lead study author Dr Duncan Wright of the University of NSW.

“While a few other planets have been found that orbit stars closer to us than Wolf 1061, those planets are not considered to be remotely habitable.”

The discovery was announced in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Watch this simulation of the orbital configuration of the Wolf 1061 system. The simulation was made using the Universe Sandbox 2 software from universesandbox.com:

The three planets orbit the small, relatively cool and stable star about every 5, 18 and 67 days. Their masses are at least 1.4, 4.3 and 5.2 times that of Earth.

The larger outer planet falls just outside the outer boundary of the habitable zone and is also likely to be rocky, while the smaller inner planet is too close to the star to be habitable.

The discovery was made using observations of Wolf 1061 collected by the HARPS spectrograph on the European Southern Observatory’s 3.6 metre telescope in La Silla in Chile.

“Our team has developed a new technique that improves the analysis of the data from this precise, purpose-built, planet-hunting instrument, and we have studied more than a decade’s worth of observations of Wolf 1061,” says Professor Chris Tinney, head of Exoplanetary Science at UNSW.

“These three planets right next door to us join the small but growing ranks of potentially habitable rocky worlds orbiting nearby stars cooler than our Sun.”

Small rocky planets like our own are now known to be abundant in the galaxy. Multi-planet systems also appear to be common. However, most of the rocky exoplanets discovered so far are hundreds or thousands of light years away.

The close proximity of the planets around Wolf 1061 means there is a good chance these planets may pass across the face of the star. If they do, then it may be possible to study the atmospheres to see whether they would support life.

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