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New exoplanet found: is there life on “Wolf 1069 b”?


A Heidelberg research team has discovered a new planet outside the solar system on which life could be possible. Liquid water and livable temperatures would be possible there.

By Pascal Kiss, Uwe Gradwohl, Lena Schmidt, SWR

That aliens could one day reach Earth with UFOs – a fascinating thought. But even without UFO technology, it is already possible for terrestrial scientists to discover evidence of extraterrestrial life far out in space. They search with great effort for planets orbiting other stars, so-called exoplanets. To be habitable, such planets must also have liquid water, good protection from UV radiation, and moderate temperatures.

Planet is 31 light years away

A research team from Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) in Heidelberg, another potentially life-friendly planet candidate has now gone online with a sophisticated technology. Her Results the researchers published in the journal “Astronomy & Astrophysics”. The planet, which Diana Kossakowski’s team discovered as part of the German-Spanish CARMENES program, orbits the red dwarf star “Wolf 1069” – hence the name of the new exoplanet “Wolf 1069 b”. It is about 31 light years from Earth. Flight time there with a commercially available terrestrial spaceship: approx. 600,000 years.

This is how the exoplanet was discovered

The discovery of exoplanets is nothing new. In 1995, two Swiss astronomers found the first exoplanet orbiting the sun-like star 51 Pegasi. Since this discovery almost 30 years ago, more than 5000 other exoplanets have been found. However, only about 1.5 percent of these planets have a mass less than two Earth masses, making them similar in size and mass to Earth. And only about a dozen of these exorocky planets are in the so-called habitable zone around a star. In astronomy, the “habitable zone” is the ring-shaped area around a star in which water can occur in liquid form – one of the prerequisites for life, as it is possible on earth. Technically, it is a great challenge to detect such low-mass planets.

Heidelberg researchers discover new exoplanets

Pascal Kiss, SWR, tagesschau24 2:00 p.m., 3.2.2023

Shaking stars help in the search

The MPIA astronomers were now looking for planets on the dwarf star “Wolf 1069” using an extremely sophisticated method. They used the fact that not only does the star exert a gravitational pull on its planets, but the planets themselves also cause the star to wobble a little through their attraction. And because of this wobbling, according to Diane Kossakowski, head of the research group, the star alternately appears a little redder and then a little bluer than if it were sitting quietly in its place in space.

Radial Velocity of Stars

These color changes are not visible to the human eye but can be measured with a spectrograph. This method is also called the RV method because the change in color is ultimately caused by the change in the star’s radial velocity. From the small changes in the radial velocity and thus the color of the starlight, the research team was able to deduce that there must be a planet on “Wolf 1069”, and even the planet’s mass could be estimated from the data.

The characteristics of “Wolf 1069 b”

The planet has about the mass of Earth and orbits its star in 15.6 days – significantly faster than Earth, which orbits the sun once in 365 days. And there is one more difference: the exoplanet revolves around its star in a locked rotation. As a result, the planet always faces the star with the same side, it does not become day and night like on Earth. While the sun never sets on one half of the exoplanet, it is always dark on the other half.

RV method might help

What it looks like on “Wolf 1069 b” cannot be found out even with the best telescopes due to the large distance and small size of the planet. The James Webb Space Telescope has, after all, already successfully determined the composition of an exoplanet’s atmosphere. So far, extrasolar planets have only been searched for within a radius of 6000 light-years around our solar system. In the vastness of the Milky Way, whose diameter is over 100,000 light-years, countless of them are likely to be found.

With methods such as the RV method, further exoplanets could be discovered and these could be examined even more closely with improved technologies in the future. Kossakowski assumes that in the next ten or 20 years it will be possible to investigate whether there is extraterrestrial life – for example on “Wolf 1069 b”. The prerequisites would basically be given on the exoplanet, as the research team suspects.

Life-friendly atmosphere?

“Wolf 1069 b” is much closer to its star than Earth is to the Sun. Actually, the temperatures should be far too high for the planet to be habitable. But compared to the Sun, “Wolf 1069” has a cooler surface and emits much less radiation. As a result, the habitable zone is shifting toward the star, and the planet may be habitable despite being closer to its sun.

The new exoplanet is now one of the 20 most promising candidates in the search for extraterrestrial life, says team leader Diana Kossakowski. Because according to the scientist, the first findings indicate that “Wolf 1069 b” can maintain a magnetic field. This is necessary to protect living beings from harmful radiation bursts from the star.

Due to the magnetic field, the planet could also have an atmosphere that ensures livable temperatures. The research team calculated that if endowed with an Earth-like atmosphere, Wolf 1069 b could have an average temperature of a comfortable 13 degrees.

“Wolf 1069 b” will certainly be researched further – because next to exoplanets like “Proxima Centauri b” and “TRAPPIST-1 e” it is one of the most promising places for the search for signs of extraterrestrial life in the future.