A Newly Discovered Potentially Habitable Planet Is the Closest Ever
Astronomers at Australia's University of New South Wales (UNSW) have discovered a planet orbiting an inactive red dwarf star 14 light-years away that is four times the mass of our planet and has the potential to be habitable, which would make it the closest potentially habitable planet ever discovered (that is, outside of our solar system, where there are at least nine possibilities where life might exist).
The discovery, which will be published soon in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, was made using observations of the Wolf 1061 star by the HARPS spectrograph on the European Southern Observatory in Chile. Designated as Wolf 1061c, the planet is one of three planets orbiting the red dwarf star Wolf 1061. While all three are thought to be solid rather than gaseous, Wolf 1061c is the only one believed to potentially be hospitable to life, according to the UNSW's Duncan Wright.
"The middle planet, Wolf 1061c, sits within the ‘Goldilocks’ zone where it might be possible for liquid water—and maybe even life—to exist," Wright said in a press statement. Because Wolf 1061c is, unlike the other two planets, neither too far nor too close to the red dwarf star, the conditions on it may be just right.
But before you apply to NASA to become an astronaut, you should know that scientists still have much to learn about the planet, which has four times the mass of Earth. "The close proximity of the planets around Wolf 1061 means there is a good chance these planets may pass across the face of the star," Rob Wittenmyer of UNSW said. "If they do, then it may be possible to study the atmospheres of these planets in future to see whether they would be conducive to life."
According to Universe Today, even if we had a spaceship powered by nuclear pulse propulsion—which is entirely theoretical—it would still take 85 years to travel 4.3 light-years. Wolf 1061c is more than three times as far. So while it's the closest potentially habitable planet scientists have found, it's still pretty far away.