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Won’t you be my neighbor? Astronomers spot habitable planet a mere 12 light years away

Astronomers have spotted a potentially habitable planet a mere 12 light years away from Earth, according to a recently-released statement from the University of Hertfordshire. An international team of astronomers reports that they have discovered that Tau Ceti, one of the nearest and most Sun-like stars, may be home to five planets – with one in the star’s habitable zone (the habitable zone, also known as the circumstellar habitable zone, is the scientific term for the region around a star in which it is possible for a planet to maintain liquid water on its surface.)

According to astronomers, Tau Ceti is only twelve light years away from our planet Earth (a light year is a unit of length equal to approximately 6 trillion miles). Despite its distance, astronomers note that the Sun-like star is visible with the naked eye. They believe that the star’s five planets have masses between two and six times the mass of the Earth. The planet that is located in the habitable zone of the star is reported to have a mass approximately five times that of Earth. This makes it, researchers say, the tiniest planet discovered to be circling in the habitable zone of any Sun-like star.

Combining more than 6,000 observations from several different instruments, researchers modeled the data. Deploying new techniques, the team has discovered a way to distinguish signals half the size previously thought possible. This new detection system gives researchers the ability to better identify small planets.

“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,” said Mikko Tuomi, from the University of Hertfordshire and the first author of the paper, in a statement. “This significantly improved our noise modelling techniques and increased our ability to find low mass planets.”

The new detection system also allows astronomers to take a closer look at planet-rich systems like Tau Ceti.

“We chose Tau Ceti for this noise modelling study because we had thought it contained no signals. And as it is so bright and similar to our Sun it is an ideal benchmark system to test out our methods for the detection of small planets,” said Hugh Jones from the University of Hertfordshire in a statement.

Astronomers hope that future studies will lead to additional details about the atmospheres of Tau Ceti’s five planets.

“Tau Ceti is one of our nearest cosmic neighbors and so bright that we may be able to study the atmospheres of these planets in the not too distant future,” said James Jenkins, Universidad de Chile and Visiting Fellow at the University of Hertfordshire, in a statement. “Planetary systems found around nearby stars close to our Sun indicate that these systems are common in our Milky Way galaxy.”

Researchers contend that more than 800 planets have been spotted circling other worlds, but planets in orbit around the closest Sun-like stars, such as Tau Ceti, are extremely important to astronomers.

“As we stare at the night sky, it is worth contemplating that there may well be more planets out there than there are stars […] some fraction of which may well be habitable,” said Chris Tinney from the University of New South Wales in a statement.

As we look up toward the night sky and wonder whether we are alone in the Universe or whether we have neighbors a short distance away (as far as space is concerned), we can reflect on the words of Fred McFeely Rogers, the host of “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.”

Mr. Rogers began every episode with the show’s theme song, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

If we confirm life on another planet, perhaps that will be the first question that we will ask when faced with life forms from outer space.