Monday 26 September 2016

Alien life could be closer than we thought as habitable planet found

Jonathan Pearlman in Sydney

Published 18/12/2015 | 02:30

Undated handout photo issued by Harvard University of an artist's impression of an Earth-like planet orbiting a star near the end of its life, surrounded by a shell of expanding gas as it is announced that the prospect of some form of alien life is much closer than previously imagined
Undated handout photo issued by Harvard University of an artist's impression of an Earth-like planet orbiting a star near the end of its life, surrounded by a shell of expanding gas as it is announced that the prospect of some form of alien life is much closer than previously imagined

Alien life could be closer than previously thought after Australian scientists found the closest potentially habitable planet to Earth with an apparently calm and rocky world.

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The planet, named Wolf 1061c, orbits a star 14 light years away - about a third closer than the next nearest potentially inhabitable planet, which was found in 2013.

Astronomers described the planet as "an incredibly close object" even though it is 80 trillion miles away and about 100 times too faint to be seen with the naked eye.

"It is fascinating to look out at the vastness of space and think a star so very close to us - a near neighbour - could host a habitable planet," Duncan Wright, from the University of New South Wales, told ABC News yesterday.

The planet, which is more than four times the mass of the Earth, is one of three to orbit Wolf 1061, a small, red dwarf star discovered early last century by German astronomer Max Wolf.

All three planets are believed to be rocky, like Earth, but only the middle one is believed to be inhabitable.

"The middle planet Wolf 1061c, is orbiting within the so-called 'Goldilocks zone' - the habitable zone where it might be possible for liquid water and maybe even life to exist," Mr Wright said.

Exciting

"This discovery is especially exciting because the star is extremely calm… 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 astronomers believe the planet "does tick the boxes" but they said they will learn more next month when its orbit brings it closer to earth.

About 20 known planets are believed to be inhabitable but most are hundreds of thousands of light years away, making them difficult to study.

The discovery was based on observations collected by the European Southern Observatory's telescope in La Silla in Chile and involved analysis of more than a decade's worth of data.

The finding will be published in the journal 'Astrophysical Journal Letters'.

Irish Independent

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