Two potentially habitable planets discovered just 12 light years away

Astronomers have identified four Earth-sized planets orbiting a star 12 light years from our own Sun, two of which are in the habitable zone and so could be host to liquid water.

The planets, which are thought to be around 70% larger than Earth, orbit a star known as tau Ceti, which is in the Cetus constellation, and has a similar spectral range to our sun, although only 78% of the mass.

As a result, the astronomers, led by a team at the University of Hertfordshire, not only believe that the two within the habitable zone could be host to life, but could be targets for colonisation by our descendents.

The research, which is published today in the Astronomical Journal, represents a significant step in the ongoing hunt for life on other planets, providing one of the closest discoveries outside of our own solar system.

The Cetus constellation, which is traditionally depicted as a whale in mythology

The planets were detected not by direct imaging – that is, capturing an image of them using an instrument such as the Hubble space telescope – but by observing wobbles in the movement of the star, from which they can infer the existence, likely size and orbit distance of surrounding planets.

“We’re getting tantalisingly close to observing the correct limits required for detecting Earth-like planets,” said study lead author Dr Fabo Feng, a research fellow at the University of Hertfordshire.

“Our detection of such weak wobbles is a milestone in the search for Earth analogs and the understanding of the Earth’s habitability through comparison with these.”

This technique was first implemented by the astronomers in 2013, and has proved vital to the discovery of planetary bodies.

“We realised that we could see how the star’s activity differed at different wavelengths and use that information to separate this activity from signals of planets,” said Dr Mikko Tuomi, study co-author and pioneer of the technique.

“Since then we’ve painstakingly improved the sensitivity of our techniques and could rule out two of the signals our team identified in 2013 as planets. But no matter how we look at the star, there seems to be at least four rocky planets orbiting it.”

The planets orbiting tau Ceti, compared to those of Earth. The green band is the habitable zone, where planets are thought to have the potential to host life. Image courtesy of the University of Hertfordshire

However, while the discovery is undoubtedly exciting, the astronomers have identified another quality to the star that could make the survival of life, either in the form of biologically native organisms or occupying humans, more challenging.

Tau Ceti also have what the university describes as a “massive debris disc” surrounding it, which would likely mean that the planets would be frequently bombarded with asteroids and comets, playing havoc with any atmosphere are providing challenging environmental conditions.

Nevertheless, the planets could well prove to be a valuable stop for future humans, and may even provide a home for hitherto-undiscovered life.

DeepMind’s Go-playing AI can learn the game for itself now

Google’s AI subsidiary DeepMind believes it is one step closer to creating AI with general intelligence because its Go-playing software, AlphaGo, has been updated and can now teach itself how to play. AlphaGo Zero was only programmed with Go's basic rules, and from there it learns everything else by itself.

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Blue Origin passes hot-fire test

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Climate change makes it more likely to see hurricanes in Europe

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Human habitat located on the Moon that will shield us from its extreme elements

Researchers have discovered a potential habitat on the Moon, which may protect astronauts from hazardous conditions on the surface.

No one has ever been on the Moon for longer than three days, largely because space suits alone can’t shield astronauts from its elements: extreme temperature variation, radiation, and meteorite impacts. Unlike Earth, the Moon also has no atmosphere or magnetic field to protects its inhabitants.

However, in a study published in Geophysical Research Letters, researchers have claimed that the safest place for astronauts to seek shelter is inside an intact lava tube.

“It’s important to know where and how big lunar lava tubes are if we’re ever going to construct a lunar base,” said Junichi Haruyama, a senior researcher at JAXA, Japan’s space agency.

Image courtesy of Purdue University/David Blair. Featured image courtesy of NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

Lava tubes are naturally occurring channels formed when a lava flow develops a hard crust, which thickens and forms a roof above the still-flowing lava stream. Once the lava stops flowing, the tunnel sometimes drains, forming a hollow void.

The Lava tubes located by Purdue University researchers are said to be spacious enough to house one of the United States’ largest cities, and while their existence – and in particular their entrance near the Marius Hills Skylight – was previously known, their size was previously an unknown quantity.

“They knew about the skylight in the Marius Hills, but they didn’t have any idea how far that underground cavity might have gone,” said Jay Melosh, professor of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at Purdue University.

“Our group at Purdue used the gravity data over that area to infer that the opening was part of a larger system. By using this complimentary technique of radar, they were able to figure out how deep and high the cavities are.”

At the first meeting of the US’ reintroduced National Space Council, vice president Mike Pence announced that the Trump administration will redirect America’s focus to travelling back to the Moon.

Pence’s declaration marks a fundamental change for NASA, which abandoned plans to send people to the moon in favour of Mars under President Barack Obama.

“We will return NASA astronauts to the moon – not only to leave behind footprints and flags, but to build the foundation we need to send Americans to Mars and beyond,” Pence said.