Newly Discovered Exoplanet Wolf 1069 b: A Potential Haven for Life

Artist’s conception of a rocky Earth-mass exoplanet like Wolf 1069 b orbiting a red dwarf star. If the planet had retained its atmosphere, chances are high that it would feature liquid water and habitable conditions over a wide area of its dayside. Credit: NASA/Ames Research Center/Daniel Rutter

The discovery of a rare exoplanet by a team led by astronomer Diana Kossakowski of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy could be a breakthrough in the search for extraterrestrial life. The exoplanet, named Wolf 1069 b, orbits its star, a red dwarf named Wolf 1069, within the habitable zone, which is the distance range around the star where liquid water can exist on a planet's surface. This is a key factor in the search for life as we know it.

Wolf 1069 b has an Earth-like mass and is likely a rocky planet with an atmosphere, making it one of the few promising targets for life-friendly conditions and biosignatures. Detecting low-mass exoplanets like Wolf 1069 b is a significant challenge. Still, Kossakowski and her team have taken on the task by using an instrument developed specifically for this purpose as part of the Carmenes project.

The surface of Wolf 1069 is relatively cool and emits a low-amplitude signal that appears to be a planet with an Earth mass. The planet orbits its star within 15.6 days at a distance equivalent to one-fifteenth of the separation between the Earth and the sun. The habitable zone around red dwarf stars like Wolf 1069 is shifted inward, meaning that the planet receives only 65% of Earth's incident radiant power from the sun.

Wolf 1069 b is tidally locked to its star, meaning that the star always faces the same side of the planet, resulting in eternal day and night. However, the planet may have formed an atmosphere that would protect it from high-energy electromagnetic radiation and particles and increase its temperature to a life-friendly range. It is also possible that the planet has a magnetic field that protects it from charged particles.

The search for exoplanets with Earth-like masses and diameters is difficult, but the Carmenes team uses small periodic frequency shifts in the stellar spectra to detect them. In the case of Wolf 1069 b, these fluctuations are large enough to be measured, making it one of the few candidates for future exoplanet characterization. At a distance of 31 light-years, Wolf 1069 b is the sixth closest Earth-mass planet in the habitable zone around its host star and a potential target in the search for extraterrestrial life.

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