(Photo : J. Pinfield for the RoPACS network at the University of Hertfordshire, 2012)
It turns out that our search for a habitable planet may have been a bit hyperopic. Scientists have now discovered a potential habitable planet that lies only 12-light-years away, a mere hop, skip, and a jump away in cosmic terms.
Astronomers from the United States, the United Kingdom, Chile, and Australia discovered that the sun-like star Tau Ceti, just 12-light-years from our planet and one of the closest stars to us, actually harbors a planetary system. The team of international scientists utilized special techniques to discover the lowest-mass planetary system ever found. Out of the five possible planets, one looks like it lies in the star's habitable zone.
"This discovery is in keeping with our emerging view that virtually every star has planets, and that the galaxy must have many such potentially habitable Earth-sized planets. They are everywhere, even right next door!" Steve Vogt from University of California Santa Cruz said.
Most planetary systems discovered to date have been systems with a large mass, filled with planets the size of Jupiter or even bigger. Detecting smaller-massed planets (such as our own) has been difficult, but the team of scientists found a way to detect planetary signals half the strength of what was previously possible.
"We pioneered new data modelling techniques by adding artificial signals to the data and testing our recovery of the signals with a variety of different approaches. This significantly improved our noise modelling techniques and increased our ability to find low mass planets," says Mikko Tuomi from the University of Hertfordshire.
The discovery gives astronomers hope that far more Earth-like planets exist out there. Pinpointing these planets can give scientists more targets to search for biological life in our universe - a key cornerstone of space exploration.
Tau Ceti is one of our nearest cosmic neighbours and so bright that we may be able to study the atmospheres of these planets in the not too distant future. Planetary systems found around nearby stars close to our Sun indicate that these systems are common in our Milky Way galaxy."