Hertfordshire scientists discover two potentially habitable planets

10 August, 2017, 18:45 | Author: Oscar Goodwin
  • Image for representational purpose only

But doing so might be a risky expedition.

But the researchers concede that a massive disc of debris around the star could be bombarding them with asteroids and comets and may reduce their habitability.

Astronomers are especially excited by the discovery because the planets are as small as 1.7 times our size.

Their size was found by observing how much of a "wobble" the planets could exert over their nearby star.

Past year we learned the nearest star beyond our sun has a planet about the size of Earth, but it's very different than our solar system and not an ideal candidate for finding alien life.

Smaller planets require extra precision since the wobble is smaller and they can be harder to spot.

"We're getting tantalisingly close to observing the correct limits required for detecting Earth-like planets", said lead researcher Dr Fabo Feng, from the University of Hertfordshire. "Our detection of such weak wobbles is a milestone in the search for [Earth-like exoplanets] and the understanding of the Earth's habitability through comparison with these".

But as phys.org explains, smaller stars like Proxima Centauri - the closest star to the sun at only 4.2 light-years away - tend to have habitable zones so close to their surface that any planet orbiting sufficiently close to it will be tidally-locked, meaning that the same side of the planet always faces the star, rendering it an uninhabitable world of temperature extremes.

Like the Sun, she has a "life zone" - the narrow area around it, where conditions favorable for life. Life-zone planets can have oceans, lakes and rivers.

What's more, later modelling efforts indicated that both planets likely orbited on the extreme edges of the habitable zone, at best. One orbits on the inner border and the other on the outer. The earth located halfway between the middle of the zone, fit for life, and her domestic turn. Their findings are to be published in the Astronomical Journal.

"We are now finally crossing a threshold where, through very sophisticated modelling of large combined data sets from multiple independent observers, we can disentangle the noise due to stellar surface activity from the very tiny signals generated by the gravitational tugs from Earth-sized orbiting planets", study coauthor Steven Vogt, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, said in a statement. It has allowed the team to rule out two signals that had previously been identified as planets in 2013, leaving four worlds circling Tau Ceti.

"But no matter how we look at the star, there seems to be at least four rocky planets orbiting it", Dr Tuomi said. They came up with an ingenious way of telling the difference between signals caused by planets and those caused by a star's activity. If the outer two planets around tau Ceti are found to be rocky and habitable, through methods such as direct imaging, then the star could be an optimal target for interstellar colonisation, as alluded to in science fiction.

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