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Nearby Star Gets Astronomers Excited

A research team from San Francisco University has completed and submitted detailed observations of Wolf 1061. The star is relatively close and known to harbor at least 3 large exoplanets.

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Lying around 14 light-years away in the constellation Ophiuchus, Wolf 1061 is a fairly dim star that hasn’t interested astronomers too much in the past. This all changed, however, when scientists found a few exoplanets orbiting the star, especially when at least one of them is known to lie within the habitable zone.

The habitable zone, for those not familiar with exoplanet hunting, is the area surrounding a star at which the temperature would be in a range that allows liquid water to form on the surface. This is thought to be one of the fundamental building blocks for life to exist, although plate tectonics is also thought to be important.

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The star, Wolf 1061, also known as GJ 628, is now considered extremely important in the hunt for extraterrestrial life. The system hosts 3 super Earths, of which one is certain to be within the habitable zone.

“The Wolf 1061 system is important because it is so close and that gives other opportunities to do follow-up studies to see if it does indeed have life.” Dr. Stephen Kane – San Francisco University

The team will publish the findings of the report in the Astrophysics Journal. Scientists will be making follow up studies to determine whether the planet might indeed host life in some form.

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“We present the results from direct measurements of stellar properties for one of the closest known exoplanet host stars; Wolf 1061. Our observations from the Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy interferometric array provide a direct stellar radius measurement of 0.3207 solar radii. We also obtained seven years of precise, automated photometry that reveals the correct stellar rotation period of 89.3 days.”

Wolf 1061 isn’t much like our own star, the Sun, as its brightness is only around 1% of it. This means the star is far cooler and the habitable zone would be closer to the star than our own. This also means that any planet within this habitable zone might face other factors such as tidal locking or extreme amounts of radiation.

“Using the updated stellar parameters, we estimate the inner and outer boundaries of the conservative habitable zone to be 0.11 AU and 0.21 AU, respectively. When scientists search for planets that could sustain life, they are basically looking for a planet with nearly identical properties to Earth. Like Earth, the planet would have to exist in a sweet spot often referred to as the ‘Goldilocks zone’ where conditions are just right for life. Simply put, the planet can’t be too close or too far from its parent star,” he added. A planet that’s too close would be too hot. If it’s too far, it may be too cold and any water would freeze, which is what happens on Mars. Conversely, when planets warm, a ‘runaway greenhouse effect’ can occur where heat gets trapped in the atmosphere. Planetary researchers believe this is what happened on Venus. They believe Venus once had oceans, but because of its proximity to the Sun the planet became so hot that all the water evaporated. Since water vapor is extremely effective in trapping in heat, it made the surface of the planet even hotter.” Dr. Stephen Kane – San Francisco University

Wolf 1061c, the exoplanet that has astronomers interested, lies within the habitable zone of its star but at the end which is closer to the star. It might, therefore, have similar conditions to Venus if similar amounts of Carbon Dioxide were present.

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So it could be another ferociously hot Venus, where a tropical ocean planet once existed before it turned into a barren landscape. It all depends on whether the greenhouse effect in the atmosphere is allowed to runaway which would make the conditions quite chaotic. Another theory states that the planet might actually go through very quick phases of freezing over and then heating up.

The scientists studying the planet fully admit that whilst on a galactic scale, Wolf 1061 is fairly close to us, it is still a long way for even our most advanced instruments. It is, therefore, hard to study and confirm what conditions might be like. We can, however, expect to hear more about this system as our imaging equipment and techniques improve over time. And, one day we might be taking trips to these exoplanets for our vacations.

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