Astronomers find potentially habitable planet; we might need it for Friday

J. Pinfield for the RoPACS network at the University of Hertfordshire, 2012
Artist’s impression of the Tau Ceti system.

If you’re someone who believes December 21 is a cause for concern, here’s some exciting news. A team of astronomers researching a nearby star not only found that it has its own planetary system, but also discovered a planet that’s potentially habitable.

The team of researchers at UC Santa Cruz from the US, UK, Chile and Australia did some work around the star Tau Ceti, our closest Sun-like neighbor, and found the star may host five planets. Of these planets, one is actually in what can be called a “habitable zone," meaning that it may be able to harbor life.

Tau Ceti is about 12 light years away from Earth. At the cosmic level, that’s actually quite close—Tau Ceti is close enough to be seen by the naked eye at night. Also, it’s spectrally classified the same as our Sun, even though it's somewhat smaller and cooler. The five newly discovered planets all have orbits under 100 days, and a mass between two to six times that of Earth; the one in the habitable zone is five times more massive than our home planet.

How can a planet with such a short orbit be habitable? According to Professor Steve Vogt, Earth simply goes against typical nature:

"We are now beginning to understand that nature seems to overwhelmingly prefer systems that have multiple planets with orbits of less than 100 days. This is quite unlike our own solar system [...] So our solar system is, in some sense, a bit of a freak and not the most typical kind of system that Nature cooks up."

Using new sensitivity techniques, the team of six utilized three different telescopes and studied over six thousand observations to collate data. This technique makes it possible to find smaller solar systems like Tau Ceti's.

Researchers believe this discovery will help prove that almost all stars have some form of planetary system, which of course would mean that habitable planets are more common than we previously thought. In future, astronomers will hopefully be able to study the atmosphere of this planet to see how Earth-like it really is.

So it looks like there could be hope for human life after all, apocalypse or otherwise. Now if only we could figure out that whole interstellar travel thing...

[UC Santa Cruz / Image: J. Pinfield for the RoPACS network at the University of Hertfordshire, 2012.]

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