Saturday, December 26, 2015

Wolf 1061c: The Closest Exoplanet To Earth To Harbor Life?

At around 14 light-years from our planet, will the exoplanet – as in a planet outside of our Solar System - that can harbor life similar to one found here on Earth? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Star Trek fans may be wondering if the planet is related to Wolf 359 – that Federation colonized planet that was invaded by the Borg – but when the discovery was announced back in December 17, 2015 following a study based on 10 years of archival spectrum taken of the star Wolf 1061 using the HARPS Spectrograph attached to the ESO 3.6 meter telescope at the European Southern Observatory at La Silla, Chile. The discovery was made by a team of astronomers from the University of New South Wales of Australia. 

Wolf 1061c or WL1061c is an exoplanet – that is a planet that lies outside of our Solar System – orbiting the red dwarf star Wolf 1061 in the Ophiuchus constellation about 13.8 light years from Earth. Wolf 1061c is the second planet in order from its parent star in a triple planetary system and has an orbital period of 17.9 days. Wolf 1061c is classified as a super-Earth type exoplanet as its mass is 4.3 times that of Earth and an estimated surface gravity of 1.6 times that found on the surface of the Earth. In astronomical terms, the Wolf 1061 system is relatively close to planet Earth’s Solar System at 13.8 light years away. This makes it the closest known potentially habitable planet to Earth, yielding interests from astronomers the world over. 

Wolf 1061c’s orbital distance of 0.084 AU (astronomical units) – assuming mild eccentricity – lies at the inner edge of its parent star’s habitable zone, which extends from approximately 0.073 to 0.190 AU. For comparison, the habitable zone of our Sun is approximately at 0.5 to 3.0 AU if you account for our Sun’s greater energy emission. Because it is so close to its parent star, planet Wolf 1061c is likely to be tidally locked – meaning one side of the planet permanently faces its parent star and the other side permanently faces away. Although this scenario could result in extreme temperature differences on the planet, the terminator line that separates the illuminated side and the dark side could potentially be habitable for life-forms similar to that that exists here on Earth, as the temperature there could be suitable for liquid water to exist. Additionally, a much larger portion of the planet could also be habitable if Wolf 1061c has a thick enough atmosphere to facilitate heat transfer away from the side permanently facing its parent star.     

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