Is Life Possible on Exoplanet Wolf 1061c?

A potentially habitable exoplanet might be located in the nearest solar system. An exoplanet with the prime conditions for the human life is circling the star Wolf 1061 just 14 light-years away. Wolf 1061c is the closest known potentially habitable planet to Earth after Proxima b.

San Francisco State University astronomer Stephen Kane has been studying exoplanets and habitable zones for many years. And now, he examined the habitable zone on a planetary system 14 light years away.

“The Wolf 1061 system is important because it is so close and that gives other opportunities to do follow-up studies to see if it does indeed have life,” Kane said.

The habitable zone is an area where a planet’s distance from its host star makes conditions suitable for liquid water. Our planet is in the habitable zone in our own solar system.

Wolf 1061 star has three planets in its planetary system, but only one of them is completely within the habitable zone. The planets were detected in 2015, after more than a decade of observations of Wolf 1061 star.

With assistance from collaborators at Tennessee State University and in Geneva, Switzerland, Kane and former undergraduate student Miranda Waters were able to measure the luminosity of the host star. They ran calculations of the exoplanet’s orbit to figure out what the temperature and pressure on the surface could be.

But just because Wolf 1061c is entirely within a habitable zone, that doesn’t necessarily mean the life conditions are similar to those on Earth.

Kane says there is a possibility that this exoplanet is more similar to Venus. Wolf 1061c is quite close to the inner edge of the habitable zone, so the exoplanet could have an atmosphere similar to what Venus had in its earliest days. “It’s close enough to the star where it’s looking suspiciously like a runaway greenhouse,” Kane said.

Scientists believe that Venus once had an ocean, but “runaway greenhouse effect” caused all water to evaporate. Kane and his research time are afraid this scenario can happen on Wolf 1061c.

In addition, Wolf 1061c’s orbit changes at a much faster rate than the Earth orbits the Sun, which could to quite chaotic weather. The planet could be a place of many chaotic climate changes such as a rapidly encroaching ice age.  “It could cause the frequency of the planet freezing over or heating up to be quite severe,” Kane said.

In the coming years, new telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope will be able to provide a fully understanding exoplanet Wolf 1061c. These new telescopes, Kane said, will be able to detect atmospheric components of the exoplanets and show what’s happening on the surface.

The Kane’s study has been accepted for publication in an upcoming edition of The Astrophysical Journal.