Newly discovered planet may hold key to alien life, study says

A new Earth-sized rocky planet discovered about 31 light years away may be a “promising target” to search for signs of extraterrestrial life, according to a new study.

The research, published recently in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, describes a planet orbiting its home star – the red dwarf Wolf 1069 – in the habitable zone that may be conducive for liquid water to exist on the planet’s surface.

Researchers, including those from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany, say the planet is a rocky planet with an Earth-like mass that may also have an atmosphere.

These features, they say, make the planet one of few “promising targets” to look for signs of life-friendly conditions as well as life signature molecules.

To put the new discovery into perspective, scientists explain that only a dozen of the over 5,000 exoplanets currently known to astronomers have an Earth-like mass and also occupy a habitable zone where water can exist in liquid form.

“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,” study co-author Diana Kossakowski said in a statement.

“It orbits the star within 15.6 days at a distance equivalent to one-fifteenth of the separation between the Earth and the Sun,” Dr Kossakowski explained.

Despite the planet’s close distance to the central red-dwarf star, it receives only about 65 per cent of the incident radiant power of what Earth receives from the Sun.

The star, scientists say, is also “relatively cool” and appears orange-reddish, leading to the so-called habitable zone shifting inwards in this solar system.

Due to these “special conditions”, researchers say the planets around red dwarf stars like Wolf 1069 can be potentially friendly to life.

Scientists suspect the red-dwarf star and the planet may be tidally locked, meaning the star may always be facing the same side of the planet – similar to how the Earth always faces the same side of the Moon.

They speculate that the average temperature on the rocky planet even on the side facing the star may be about -23C.

If the planet is found to have an atmosphere, its temperature may be upto +13C, researchers say based on computer simulations.

In these conditions, water can remain liquid and life-friendly conditions can prevail on the planet, scientists say.

Based on these factors, the astronomers say the planet is “a very promising target for future three-dimensional climate models to investigate various habitability cases.”

However, scientists say looking for signs of life on this rocky planet 31 light years away is currently beyond the capabilities of astronomical research.

“We will probably have to wait another 10 years for this,” Dr Kossakowski said.