Researchers from the University of New South Wales discovered a planet four times the mass of Earth around the red dwarf star Wolf 1061, which is the closest to us and could be habitable for alien life, sitting just 14 light-years away. It is one of three around Wolf 1061, and scientists believe it could possess water and life.
"It is a particularly exciting find because all three planets are of low enough mass to be potentially rocky and have a solid surface, and the middle planet, Wolf 1061c, sits within the 'Goldilocks' zone where it might be possible for liquid water — and maybe even life — to exist," said Duncan Wright, lead author of the study, in a press release. "It is fascinating to look out at the vastness of space and think a star so very close to us — a near neighbor — could host a habitable planet."
The largest of the three planets falls just outside the boundaries of a habitable planet and scientists believe it likely possesses a rocky environment, whereas the small inner planet is too close in proximity to the star to offer any potential for life.
"While a few other planets have been found that orbit stars closer to us than Wolf 1061, those planets are not considered to be remotely habitable," said Wright.
The team of scientists made the discovery using data gathered from the HARPS spectrograph on the European Southern Observatory's 3.6 meter telescope.
"Our team has developed a new technique that improves the analysis of the data from this precise, purpose-built, planet-hunting instrument, and we have studied more than a decade's worth of observations of Wolf 1061," said Chris Tinney, who participated in the research. "These three planets right next door to us join the small but growing ranks of potentially habitable rocky worlds orbiting nearby stars cooler than our Sun."
The findings were published in the Dec. 16 issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters.