A team of astronomers has discovered a highly intriguing rocky planet orbiting in the habitable zone of a nearby star.
Since it orbits its star at a distance where liquid water can exist, the scientists say they're excited to probe the Earth-like planet for signs of extraterrestrial life.
Out of the over 5,000 exoplanets we've discovered, a tiny minority of them are smaller than two Earth masses. Out of those, only a dozen orbit their host star's habitable zone. In other words, this is a very rare and promising world.
The planet, dubbed Wolf 1069 b, is located in a star system a mere 31 light-years from Earth in the Cygnus constellation.
"When we analyzed the data of the star Wolf 1069, we discovered a clear, low-amplitude signal of what appears to be a planet of roughly Earth mass," said Diana Kossakowski, Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) astronomer and lead author of a paper published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, in the statement.
"It orbits the star within 15.6 days at a distance equivalent to one-fifteenth of the separation between the Earth and the Sun," she added.
But conditions for life on the rocky planet aren't nearly as balmy as back on Earth, as it only receives 65 percent of the radiation it receives from its star than Earth gets from the Sun. That means its surface is likely a lot cooler.
Assuming the planet is bare rock, temperatures could average around -9 degrees Fahrenheit. With an Earth-like atmosphere, temperatures might reach as high as a brisk but extremely livable 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
Such an atmosphere might also shield the planet's surface from notoriously high levels of UV radiation emanating from red dwarfs like Wolf 1069.
Unfortunately, there's no guarantee that the exoplanet actually has an atmosphere. Red dwarfs are particularly violent hosts that could easily wreak havoc on the unfortunate planets trapped in their orbit.
Making matters worse, Wolf 1069 b is tidally locked with its host star, which means one side always faces away, just like the Moon. That means only portions of the planet's dayside could be habitable.
Despite these considerable caveats, Kossakowski and her colleagues are optimistic.
"Our computer simulations show that about five percent of all evolving planetary systems around low-mass stars, such as Wolf 1069, end up with a single detectable planet," said MPIA's Remo Burn, co-author of the study, in the statement.
While 31 light-years isn't exactly next door, it's not an unsurpassable distance as far as Earth-like exoplanets go. But developing the technologies to search for biosignatures at such distances remains as elusive as ever.
"We’ll probably have to wait another ten years for this," Kossakowski said, adding that for now, the team will keep looking for even more tantalizing candidates in the vicinity of Wolf 1069.
READ MORE: A nearby potentially habitable Earth-mass exoplanet [Max Planck Institute for Astronomy]
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