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Astronomers are investigating a planet just outside of Earth’s solar system that could have the right conditions to support life.
Known as Wolf 1061c, the planet sits right within the habitable zone, and is close enough for scientists to conduct ongoing studies.
But, it is positioned close to the inner edge of this region, meaning it could be subjected to extreme heat that becomes trapped in its atmosphere, spurring a runaway greenhouse effect.
An artist’s impression of an exoplanet is pictured
In astronomy and astrobiology, the habitable zone is the range of orbits around a star in which a planet can support liquid water.
This habitable zone is also known as the ‘Goldilocks’ zone, taken from the children’s fairy tale.
The temperature from the star needs to be ‘just right’ so that liquid water can exist on the surface.
The boundaries of the habitable zone are critical.
If a planet is too close to its star, it will experience a runaway greenhouse gas effect, like Venus.
But if it’s too far, any water will freeze, as is seen on Mars.
Since the concept was first presented in 1953, many stars have been shown to have a Goldilocks area, and some of them have one or several planets in this zone, like ‘Kepler-186f’, discovered in 2014.
Researchers from San Francisco State University focused on planets of the Wolf 1061 system just 14 light years away.
There are three planets known to exist in this nearby system, and one lies within the habitable zone.
To better understand the conditions of this planet, Wolf 1061c, the researchers measured the star around which it orbits.
Its position in this zone, coupled with its proximity to Earth, makes Wolf 1061c an attractive candidate for the search for life.
‘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,’ said San Francisco State University astronomer Stephen Kane.
Even within the habitable zone, it must sit in a spot that’s just right – also known as the ‘Goldilocks zone.’
If the planet is too far away from its parent star, it might be too cold, and consequently freeze any water.
According to Kane, the latter situation is what happened on Mars.
If it’s too close, though, it would be too hot.
This can generate a ‘runaway greenhouse effect’ as heat is trapped in the atmosphere.
Many believe this is what happened on Venus, which is thought to have once had oceans that evaporated and trapped heat within the water vapour.
This, in turn, makes the surface even hotter – now, Venus can hit 880 degrees Fahrenheit.
Given Wolf 1061c’s position near the inner edge of its habitable zone, the scientists say it could suffer the same fate.
‘It’s close enough to the star where it’s looking suspiciously like a runaway greenhouse,’ Kane said.
Many believe this is what happened on Venus (pictured) which is thought to have once had oceans that evaporated and trapped heat within the water vapour. Given Wolf 1061c’s position near the inner edge of its habitable zone, the scientists say it could suffer the same fate
And, the team also noted that its orbit changes at a faster rate.
This could be a sign of chaotic climate.
‘It could cause the frequency of the planet freezing over or heating up to be quite severe,’ Kane said.
Still, this doesn’t entirely rule out the possibility of life.
According to Kane, one possible scenario would be that the short time scales of the orbit changes cool the planet off.
With the launch of new, powerful telescopes in the coming years, including the James Webb Space Telescope, the researchers say they will be able to better assess the atmospheric conditions of exoplanets to find out if life could really exist.