Major breakthrough as ‘rare’ Earth-like planet spotted

Space: Stunning time-lapse reveals 4,000 exoplanets

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Researchers have discovered a new exoplanet with an almost Earth-like mass that could be worth investigating for signs of life. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy found that the planet orbits its home star, the red dwarf Wolf 1069, in the habitable zone. This zone refers to the range of orbits around a star, within which the planet can support water assuming it has sufficient atmospheric pressure. In its study, the astronomers note that the exoplanet, named Wolf 1069 b has an Earth-like mass, and is a likely a rocky planet that holds an atmosphere.

According to a statement by the Max Planck Society, these factors make “the planet one of the few promising targets to search for signs of life-friendly conditions and biosignatures.”

Over the past few decades, astronomers have been scouring the universe for Earth-like exoplanets, which lie outside our solar system. Of the more than 5,000 exoplanets that have so far been discovered, only about a dozen of them have an Earth-like mass and populate the habitable zone. 

Astronomer Diana Kossakowski and her team at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg have taken on the challenging task of discovering such Earth-like exoplanets. 

As part of the Carmenes project at the Calar Alto Observatory in Spain, scientists have developed an instrument specifically for the search of potentially habitable worlds. 

Professor Kossakowski said: “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.

“It orbits the star within 15.6 days at a distance equivalent to one-fifteenth of the separation between the Earth and the sun.”

According to the study published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, the surface of the dwarf star is relatively cool and thus appears orange-reddish.

She noted that as a result of the cooler Sun, the so-called habitable zone shifted inwards towards the star. Despite being so close, the exoplanet only receives about 65 percent of the incident radiant power of what Earth receives from the sun. 

The study noted that these special conditions make planets around red dwarf stars like Wolf 1069 potentially friendly to life. Furthermore, analysis conducted by the researchers also suggested that the rotation of this exoplanet is likely tidally locked to the orbit of its host star.

This means that the star always faces the same side of the planet, meaning that one side of the planet experiences an eternal day, while it is always night on the other half.

Assuming the Wolf 1069 b to be a bare and rocky planet, the researchers estimated that the average temperature even on the side facing the star would be just minus 23 degrees Celsius. 

However, researchers believe that it is quite possible for the exoplanet to have formed an atmosphere, which is found to be, would raise the temperature of the planet to plus 13 degrees. 

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Under these circumstances, the scientists noted that water would remain liquid and life-friendly conditions could prevail, because life as we know it depends on water.

Having an atmosphere is critical for life, as it could protect the planet from high-energy electromagnetic radiation and particles that would destroy possible biomolecules. 

This radiation and particulars could either stem from the central star or from interstellar space. If the star’s radiation is too intense, it can also strip off a planet’s atmosphere, as it did for Mars.

But given that Wolf 1069 b has a weak star, it would not give off as much radiation, and thus researchers believe that it may have been able to preserve its atmosphere.

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