We're Getting a Lot Better at Looking for Habitable Planets

Just in time.
January 29, 2017, 7:30pm

Good news! If recent events inspire you to look for a way off this planet, we just got a lot better at hunting for another habitable space rock. As researchers are finally starting to directly observe the stars we know have planetary systems, it's now possible to accurately gauge if their planets' orbits are not too far, but not too close to their stellar parent.

In a study published in  Astrophysical Journal, Stephen Kane, associate professor of astronomy at San Francisco State University, focused on the red dwarf star Wolf 1061, located only 14 light-years from Earth. He and his researchers have been able to accumulate enough information to determine the star's precise habitable zone—that is, the area around a star that harbours conditions conducive for life. What's even more exciting is that the study confirms suspicions that the second planet in the system is found on the inside edge of this region.

"We understand planets only as well as we understand the star," Stephen Kane told Motherboard over the phone. Wolf 1061 is a faint star of the M dwarf family. That means that—despite its proximity to our solar system—it's still very hard to observe and get exact details about it. Kane and his team have measured the luminosity and temperature of Wolf 1061 and also determined the detailed orbits of the star's three planets. With this data, they can say for sure that Wolf 1061c, the system's second planet from the star, is situated where scientists believe liquid water could exist on the planet's surface if there was enough atmosphere to sustain it.

Before now, Wolf 1061's properties were only approximated through stellar modelling, a process in which a star's type is used to extrapolate additional data.

"Unfortunately, stellar models do not always give an accurate picture of what these small stars are really like and getting direct measurements has been extraordinarily useful for being able to characterized the system and the planets that are in it," Kane said.

Read the rest over at Motherboard.