Potentially rocky, habitable exoplanet discovered 31 light-years away

It is the sixth closest Earth-like habitable zone exoplanet discovered to date.
Chris Young

An international team of 50 astronomers discovered an exoplanet named Wolf 1069 b, orbiting a red dwarf star only 31 light-years from Earth, a press statement reveals.

The researchers believe the exoplanet may be a rocky world, meaning it would be a particularly rare find — less than 200 of the roughly 5,200 exoplanets discovered so far are rocky.

Astronomers detect a new alien world

Wolf 1069 b has roughly 1.26 the Earth's mass and about 1.08 its size. The alien planet orbits in its star's habitable zone, meaning it is likely far enough for liquid water to exist on its surface.

"When we analyzed the data of the star Wolf 1069, we discovered a clear, low-amplitude signal of what appears to be a planet of roughly Earth mass," explained Diana Kossakowski, an astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany and lead author on the new research. "It orbits the star within 15.6 days at a distance equivalent to one-15th of the separation between the Earth and the sun." 

Though Wolf 1069 b orbits so close to its star — meaning a year on the planet is equivalent to roughly half an Earth month — it is still in its star's habitable zone due to its red dwarf host star being much smaller than our sun. According to the researchers, who published their findings in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, the exoplanet receives approximately 65 percent of the solar radiance we receive on Earth.

Due to its proximity to its star, the planet is also tidally locked, meaning one side always faces the sun while the other experiences constant nighttime. The researchers also found that the exoplanet's surface temperatures range between minus 139.27 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 95.15 degrees Celsius) and 55.13 F (12.85 C), with an average of minus 40.25 F (minus 40.14 C). 

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How do you detect an exoplanet?

The researchers discovered Wolf 1069 b using the CARMENES (Calar Alto High-Resolution Search for M Dwarfs with Exoearths with Near-infrared and Optical Échelle Spectographs) instrument on the 11.5-foot (3.5-meter) telescope at the Calar Alto Observatory in Spain. 

The observatory detected the exoplanet using a method known as radial velocity. Essentially, the gravity of orbiting exoplanets causes small wabbles in their host stars, which changes the color of the light astronomers observe.

Other methods for discovering exoplanets include direct imaging and the transit method, which measures the periodic drop in light of a distant star as an exoplanet passes between the star and an observatory's field of view. According to NASA's website, the transit method has been the most successful, accounting for 3,941 exoplanets discovered, while radial velocity is the second most successful, accounting for 1,025.

The fact the alien world is 31 light-years away means it is now the sixth closest Earth-like habitable zone exoplanet from Earth. The nearest such planet to Earth is found in our closest star system and is called Proxima Centauri b.

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