A Sun-Like Star Very Close to Us Might Have a Goldilocks Planet

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Artist’s impression of the Tau Ceti system. Created by J. Pinfield for the RoPACS network at the University of Hertfordshire, 2012.

A bunch of science-fiction stories just got a little bit more feasible: An international team of astronomers recently announced that Tau Ceti, one of the closest Sun-like stars, may have planets like our solar system. And one of them might be in the star’s habitable zone.

Tau Ceti is only 12 light years away from Earth, so close that at night, we can see it with the naked eye. Using 6000 observations from three different instruments, scientists have determined that its planets are between two and six times the mass of Earth, making it "the lowest-mass planetary system yet detected," according to a press release issued by the team.

The planet in Tau Ceti's habitable zone is about five times Earth's mass—the smallest planet found orbiting in the habitable zone of any Sun-like star—and could, theoretically, have conditions that are just right to support life (hence the term "Goldilocks planet").

Steve Vogt, a scientist from UC Santa Cruz who is on the team, said that this discovery is important because "it's in keeping with our emerging view that virtually every star has planets, and that the galaxy must have many potentially habitable Earth-sized planets. They are everywhere, even right next door!" Forget Mars—once NASA develops faster-than-light travel, these planets will take the search for life to a whole new level.

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December 19, 2012 - 3:30pm
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