Astronomers have been looking for traces of life on other planets for decades. The fact that it’s highly probable that we could be the only advanced life form on any planet in a 100 million light year radius (or more) from us is humbling. Regardless, we haven’t given up our search; just in case there’s a chance we could one day find evidence for life on another planet in the future.
While much of our research spans the Solar System, or the group of planets that are right in our own backyard, many astronomers are focusing their efforts on exoplanets, which are planets that reside in other star systems several light years away.
Image Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech
The idea is that by searching for Earth-like rocky exoplanets in their star’s habitable zones, which is the distance from any particular star where liquid water can exist in the right atmospheric conditions, we might find traces of life.
The latest of such research is one by the famed astronomer Stephen Kane from the San Francisco State University, in which his clues have led him to an exoplanet dubbed Wolf 1061c. His findings have been accepted by the Astrophysical Journal, but a pre-print of his research is available on arXiv.org.
At just 14 light years away, the Wolf 1061 system isn’t too far away to try and observe, but it’s not really close enough to send a full-sized spacecraft to either. That said, we have very limited tools to actually search for life forms in this system.
That aside, Wolf 1061c does have some unique qualities that could make life possible there, and Kane points very avidly at the seasonal changes on the exoplanet as the basis for his argument.
One thing to note is that because Wolf 1061c orbits so closely to its host star, it’s a little on the warmer side. Despite that caveat, Kane also mentions that the planet still orbits in the habitable zone and that since Wolf 1061c orbits the star so quickly, it goes through seasonal changes much faster than Earth does.
With that in mind, even if it was a bit hotter than Earth, the season would change from Summer to Winter much more quickly on Wolf 1061c than it does here, giving life a chance to cope with the potentially hotter environment before switching (rather dramatically) to a cold one again. This quick seasonal transition process keeps the planet at a habitable temperature year-round.
Although his hypothesis could be a viable one, there is no hard evidence yet that Wolf 1061c supports life, or that it even can for that matter. At this point in time, it’s still hard to tell if the exoplanet is more like Earth or Venus in atmospheric composition, and the latter would be too hot for most life forms to exist.
Future space exploration and observation missions hope to provide more answers, and one of the things that could help is the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is scheduled for a 2018 launch.
Stephen Hawking is also pretty sure that the proposed Breakthrough Starshot initiative will be helpful in observing other star systems for potential life forms as well, as it will allow scientists to send micro-spacecraft to other star systems in as little as two decades with the power of laser propulsion.
Only time will tell if we’re really alone out there.
Source: San Francisco State University