Finding life on Wolf 1061

Science Daily follows astronomers who have found a planet 14 light-years away that’s in just the right spot – the “Goldilocks zone” around its star – to support life. The thing is… how can you tell if things are wet and lively so far away?:

As one of the world’s leading “planet hunters,” [San Francisco State University astronomer Stephen] Kane focuses on finding “habitable zones,” areas where water could exist in a liquid state on a planet’s surface if there’s sufficient atmospheric pressure. Kane and his team, including former undergraduate student Miranda Waters, examined the habitable zone on a planetary system 14 light years away. Their findings will appear in the next issue of Astrophysical Journal in a paper titled “Characterization of the Wolf 1061 Planetary System.”

One of the three known planets in the system, a rocky planet called Wolf 1061c, is entirely within the habitable zone. With assistance from collaborators at Tennessee State University and in Geneva, Switzerland, they were able to measure the star around which the planet orbits to gain a clearer picture of whether life could exist there.

Since Wolf 1061c is close to the inner edge of the habitable zone, meaning closer to the star, it could be that the planet has an atmosphere that’s more similar to Venus. “It’s close enough to the star where it’s looking suspiciously like a runaway greenhouse,” Kane said.

Kane and his team also observed that unlike Earth, which experiences climatic changes such as an ice age because of slow variations in its orbit around the sun, Wolf 1061c’s orbit changes at a much faster rate, which could mean the climate there could be quite chaotic. “It could cause the frequency of the planet freezing over or heating up to be quite severe,” Kane said.

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