Our nearest cosmic neighbors may be closer than we think. A team of astronomers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) have announced the discovery of what could be the closest habitable planet beyond the Solar System. Orbiting the red dwarf star Wolf 1061 in the constellation of Ophiuchus, the planet is only 14 light years from Earth, which is closer than the exoplanet Gliese 667Cc's 22 light years.

According to UNSW, the planet was discovered using the HARPS spectrograph installed on the European Southern Observatory's 3.6-meter telescope in La Silla, Chile. The team studied a decade of observations using a new technique that's said to improve the analysis of the planet-hunting telescope.

The planet, designated Wolf 1061c, is four times the mass of Earth and one of three discovered orbiting the Wolf 1061 star. The team says that their masses are 1.4, 4.3, and 5.2 times that of Earth and orbit the star in 5, 18, and 67 days respectively. Wolf 1061c is the middle of the three.

All of the planets have a low enough mass to be potentially rocky and have a solid surface, and Wolf 1061c sits in the habitable, or "Goldilocks" zone, where temperatures are suitable for the existence of liquid water and, therefore, has the basic potential for life. The two other planets are, like the porridge in the fairy tale, too hot and too cold.

The team stresses that though other exoplanets have been discovered that are closer than Wolf 1061c, none of these others are considered habitable.

"The close proximity of the planets around Wolf 1061 means there is a good chance these planets may pass across the face of the star," says team member Dr Rob Wittenmyer. "If they do, then it may be possible to study the atmospheres of these planets in future to see whether they would be conducive to life."

The team's results will be published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Source: UNSW