Home away from Earth? Planet with promise found 31 light-years away, researchers say

Image from NASA/Ames Research Center/Daniel Rutter

Astronomers recently discovered a new, Earth-like planet in the nearby cosmos. It’s only 31 light-years, or roughly 186 trillion miles, away.

By human standards, this hardly seems like a short distance. In fact, if a jet could fly that far, it would be a 40 million-year journey. But given the utter vastness of space, the new planet — named Wolf 1069 b — is practically our neighbor. And given its apparent habitable conditions, at some point in the distant future, it could be our home.

The promising globe was detected by astronomers at a Spanish observatory as part of a long-running project devoted to hunting for planets around 300 dwarf stars, according to a news release from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy.

“It’s a huge accomplishment that we were even able to detect SUCH a low-amplitude signal in our data,” Dr. Diana Kossakowski, the lead astronomer involved in the finding, told McClatchy News in an email.

Detecting the planet involved a hyper-focused observation of the star that it revolves around, Kossakowski said.

“The presence of a planetary companion induces a gravitational tug onto its parent star, thus, causing the star to ‘wobble’ back and forth with respect to the observer (us). When we measure the spectra of said star, the spectral lines will appear red-and blue-shifted, indirectly indicating that a planet exists in the system,” she said.

Of the roughly 5,000 known exoplanets, or planets outside our solar system, Wolf 1069 b has distinguished itself as one of the few that astronomers say could potentially harbor life.

Several key characteristics made the planet stand out to observers. First, it contains about the same mass as Earth, a rare quality. Fewer than 2 percent of the known exoplanets have masses less than double Earth’s, astronomers said.

Additionally, Wolf 1069 b is within the circumstellar habitable zone, a distance from a star at which liquid water can exist on the planet’s surface. Liquid water is crucial for carbon-based life as we know it, according to NASA.

Still, Wolf 1069 b, which appears to be the only planet in its solar system, differentiates itself from Earth in several ways. It orbits its star at a much closer distance than the Earth does the sun, but its star emits less radiation and therefore is cooler.

And unlike our 365-day year, Wolf 1069 b makes a full revolution around its star in a mere 15.6 days.

Further, its rotation, like our moon, appears to be tidally locked, meaning only one side ever faces the star and receives sunlight.

“As a result, potentially habitable conditions only occur in a confined area on the planet’s dayside,” astronomers wrote.

“Apart from eternal day on one side and eternal night on the other, the temperature difference would most likely lead to enormous winds in the atmosphere. Not really pleasant for your everyday walk,” Dr. Martin Kürster, an astronomer involved in the discovery, told McClatchy News. “Frankly, I would not like it.”

But despite some of its key differences from Earth, and because of its promising qualities, further research of Wolf 1069 b, and other planets like it, is crucial, astronomers said.

However, it will likely be at least a decade before more advanced observations, including searches for biomarkers, can be made of the “lonely” planet, astronomers said. And the idea of traveling to Wolf 1069 b, habitable as it may be, is currently firmly in the realm of science fiction.

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