Astronomers have focused on a nearby star, Wolf 1061, in an attempt to detect whether or not one of its three known planets (also known as exoplanets, due to the fact that they exist outside of the Solar System) might harbor alien life. The best candidate, Wolf 1061c, orbits in its parent star’s habitable zone and what observers found was that the exoplanet not only might have had difficulty producing living organisms but may have problems sustaining life as well.
Phys.org reported this week that San Francisco State University astronomer Stephen Kane, who searches for exoplanets in the habitable zones of stars, decided to lead a foray into determining if extraterrestrial life were possible on nearby Wolf 1061c, whose parent star is just 14 light years away. Of course, one reason the star was chosen for study was its proximity, Kane noted. A second major consideration was that exoplanet Wolf 1061c was entirely within the star’s 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.”
According to Science Alert, the discovery of the exoplanet came in late 2015. Astronomers at the University of New South Wales in Australia announced the finding of three rocky-type worlds orbiting Wolf 1061, a red dwarf star about 126 trillion kilometers (78.3 trillion miles), or 14 light years, from Earth. While Wolf 1061b orbited close to the parent star, making it an extremely hot world, and Wolf 1061d orbited somewhat farther out, making it likely to be very cold, Wolf 1061c was found to be in the star’s habitable zone.
Initial results from the findings of Kane’s team, which relied on astronomical assistance from researchers in Tennessee State University and in Geneva, Switzerland, to measure star Wolf 1061 to better gauge its habitable zone, indicates that Wolf 1061c orbits around its parent star at the inner edge of the zone, which is also known as the “goldilocks zone,” a designation signifying an orbital area where conditions are “just right” enough to sustain living organisms. Being so far in toward its parent star, the exoplanet could very well have developed an atmosphere similar to that of Venus in our Solar System, which, according to Kane, means that it appears “close enough to the star where it’s looking suspiciously like a runaway greenhouse.”
Kane noted that the search for exoplanets that might support alien life is guided by the parameters of the properties that make life possible on Earth. This, of course, becomes a problem for worlds situated just inside the habitable zone of stars. As Kane explained, a planet cannot be too close or too far from its star. The habitable zone is that area in between that is more hospitable to the development and sustenance of life.
Exoplanets that orbit too close, a fate which exoplanet Wolf 1061c might have, can, if conditions are met, succumb to a “runaway greenhouse effect,” where a warming planetary body finds its heat trapped inside its atmosphere. NASA believes that Venus once had oceans that evaporated and that water vapor, an effective heat trap, simply made the surface of Venus even hotter than before. The process has produced temperatures on Earth’s sister world of 880 degrees Fahrenheit, making it the hottest planet in the Solar System, including Sun-scorched Mercury.
On the other side of the habitable zone, the opposite occurs. A world with water will freeze, creating an environment for life that is uninviting, much the way Mars is today.
Besides a possible problem with the greenhouse effect, Kane’s team’s research also found that the exoplanet’s orbit altered at a faster rate than does Earth’s. In so doing, Wolf 1061c’s climate could be quite chaotic, unlike the Earth, where orbital change is gradual and can result in something like the development of an ice age over an extended period of time.
But do the preliminary findings mean that exoplanet Wolf 1061c cannot sustain life? Kane offered that there was the possibility that the short time scales of the exoplanet’s orbit changes could be enough to actually cool the planet. Still, he cautioned that to get a better understanding of what was happening on the exoplanet surface, more research would be necessary.
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