With exoplanet discovery, our nearest sun-like star just got more interesting

sunlike star tau centi keckobservatory20071020
Four Earth-sized planets orbit our nearest sun-like star, Tau Ceti, according to a new study from an international team of astronomers. With masses as low as 1.7 the mass of Earth, the exoplanets are the smallest ever discovered around a nearby sun-like star, and two orbit within the star’s habitable zone.

What’s more, the detection method used by the research team represents a milestone in scientists’ ability to detect exoplanets by picking up on extremely slight movements in stars.

“We detected the planets by measuring the tiny periodic wobbles caused to the host star, Tau Ceti, by the gravitational pull of the planets orbiting it,” Mikko Tuomi, an astronomer from the University of Hertfordshire and coauthor of the study, told Digital Trends.

sun-like star
Fabo Feng
Fabo Feng

Astronomers use a handful of techniques to spot exoplanets, including direct imaging and measuring the decrease in brightness as a planet passes in front its star.

Toumi and his team used a method called radial velocity, which detects a star’s subtle movements caused by the tug of an exoplanet. But, since radial velocity relies on the pull of a planet, it is typically used to detect relatively massive planets.

“A real breakthrough [in this study] is that we were for the first time able to
detect periodic movement of a sun-like star of only 30 centimeters per second,” Toumi said. “This is the current record in precision and means that we are only a factor of three away from the ability to detect Earth-like planets orbiting such stars. Plenty of work is needed, but we are now finally approaching the ability to detect other Earths in the solar neighborhood.”

Tau Ceti is so similar to our sun that Toumi says, “they might as well be twins.” At just twelve light years away, the discovery of these exoplanets makes the system a place of increasing interest.

But, even though two of the planets are in the star’s habitable zone, it’s unclear whether they’re actually habitable or support liquid surface water. To find out, astronomers would need to use direct imaging to study the objects. That is beyond our current reach, but Toumi is optimistic that future giant ground-based telescopes or next-gen space telescopes will make that possible.

A paper detailing the research, which was accepted by the Astronomical Journal, is available online.

Emerging Tech

Chandra X-ray telescope uncovers evidence of the universe’s missing matter

Where is all of the matter in the universe? NASA's Chandra telescope has uncovered evidence of hot gas strands in the vicinity of a quasar which could explain the missing third of matter which has puzzled astronomers for years.
Emerging Tech

NASA to launch SPHEREx mission to investigate the origins of our universe

NASA is launching an ambitious mission to map the entire sky to understand the origins of the universe. The Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization and Ices Explorer (SPHEREx) mission will launch in 2023.
Emerging Tech

China’s mind-controlled cyborg rats are proof we live in a cyberpunk dystopia

Neuroscience researchers from Zhejiang University, China, have created a method that allows humans to control the movements of rats using a technology called a brain-brain interface.
Emerging Tech

After Kepler kicks the bucket, NASA releases its final image

The final images from the Kepler Space Telescope have arrived. After nearly a decade of operation, NASA’s groundbreaking telescope ran out of fuel last year and was placed into permanent sleep mode on October 30, 2018.
Emerging Tech

A river of stars one billion years old flows across the southern sky

Astronomers have identified a river of stars flowing across our galaxy and covering most of the southern sky. The estimated 4000 stars that comprise the stream were born together and have been moving together for the last one billion years.
Emerging Tech

Descending at an angle could be key to landing heavier craft on Mars

Landing on Mars is a challenge: The heavier the craft, the more difficult a safe landing becomes. Scientists propose using retropropulsion engines and angling the craft to create a pressure differential to land heavier crafts in the future.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Grow veggies indoors and shower more efficiently

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Emerging Tech

Ant-inspired walking robot navigates without GPS by using polarized light

What do you get if you cross Boston Dynamics and Ant-Man? You get Antbot, a robot from the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) which uses ant-like navigation to move around without the aid of GPS.
Emerging Tech

InSight’s heat probe will dig 16 feet beneath the surface of Mars

New images from NASA's InSight mission to Mars have confirmed that the lander succeeded in setting the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package instrument onto the surface, from where a self-hammering spike will burrow downwards.
Emerging Tech

White spots on Ceres are evidence of ancient ice volcanoes erupting

Scientists are pouring over data collected by NASA's Dawn mission to learn about the dwarf planet Ceres and the bright white spots observed at the bottom of impact craters. They believe that these spots are evidence of ice volcanoes.
Emerging Tech

Probes exploring Earth’s hazardous radiation belts enter final phase of life

The Van Allen probes have been exploring the radiation belts around Earth for seven years. Now the probes are moving into the final phase of their exploration, coming closer to Earth to gather more data before burning up in the atmosphere.
Emerging Tech

How can digital art created on obsolete platforms be preserved?

As the lines between art and technology continue to blur, digital art experiences become more commonplace. But these developments are raising an important question for art conservationists: How should digital artworks be preserved?
Emerging Tech

Statistician raises red flag about reliability of machine learning techniques

Machine learning is everywhere in science and technology. But how reliable are these techniques really? A statistician argues that questions of accuracy and reproducibility of machine learning have not been fully addressed.
Emerging Tech

Wish you could fly? You totally can with these top-of-the-line drones

In just the past few years, drones have transformed from a geeky hobbyist affair to a full-on cultural phenomenon. Here's a no-nonsense rundown of the best drones you can buy right now, no matter what kind of flying you plan to do.