Scientists discover two potentially habitable 'super-Earth' planets

Image for representational purpose only

An worldwide team of scientists devised a new, more accurate and sensitive method of detecting planets by looking for "wobbles" in the star's movement caused by the minute gravitational tug of orbiting planets, while also better ruling out false positives coming from activity on the star itself. That is a breakthrough because it suggests that we might soon be able to find other planets that are habitable like our own Earth, researchers said. But doing so might be a risky expedition.

However, living there may not be straightforward as there is evidence of a debris disc circling Tau Ceti, making it more likely that asteroids and comets could hit the planets.

Astronomers are especially excited by the discovery because the planets are as small as 1.7 times our size.

The scientists used the method of "fluctuations" of the planet, izmerena the influence of gravitational interaction of a star.

"Assuming they are all rocky planets, none of the four reside within the conservative (or pessimistic) habitable zone (~0.7 - 1.3 AU) of tau Ceti, a star slightly less massive than the Sun", Ramses Ramirez, an exoplanet researcher at Cornell University who specialises in defining the limits of the habitable zone, told Gizmodo via email.

Smaller planets require extra precision since the wobble is smaller and they can be harder to spot. "Our detection of such weak wobbles is a milestone in the search for [Earth-like exoplanets] and the understanding of the Earth's habitability through comparison with these".

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Tau Ceti is similar to our Sun in size and brightness, and like our Sun hosts a multi-planet system.

Like the Sun, she has a "life zone" - the narrow area around it, where conditions favorable for life. Two of these planets, the researchers say, might barely be on the edge of the habitable zone, that not-too-hot, not-too-cold region that can potentially support liquid water and even life. And, as before, the claim that tau Ceti e and f might reside in the habitable zone is already being contested. The Earth is situated halfway between the middle of the sun's habitable zone and its inner boundary.

This work is funded by grants from STFC and Leverhulme and the data were obtained by using the HARPS spectrograph (European Southern Observatory, Chile) and Keck-HIRES (Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA). The results are published in a study in the Astrophysical Journal.

"We realized that we could see how the star's activity differed at different wavelengths and use that information to separate this activity from signals of planets", said Dr Tuomi, lead researcher back in 2013. It has allowed the team to rule out two signals that had previously been identified as planets in 2013, leaving four worlds circling Tau Ceti.

"Together with colleagues in United Kingdom and US", Feng said "I have detected the smallest movement of a star caused by planets". They came up with an ingenious way of telling the difference between signals caused by planets and those caused by a star's activity.

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