Image: Artist's impression of five possible planets orbiting the star Tau Ceti, which is just 11.9 light-years from Earth.
J. Pinfield  /  RoPACS at University of Hertfordshire
Artist's impression of five possible planets orbiting the star Tau Ceti, which is just 11.9 light-years from Earth.
By
updated 12/19/2012 8:46:18 AM ET 2012-12-19T13:46:18

A sun-like star in our solar system's backyard may host five planets, including one perhaps capable of supporting life as we know it, a new study reports.

  1. Space news from NBCNews.com
    1. KARE
      Teen's space mission fueled by social media

      Science editor Alan Boyle's blog: "Astronaut Abby" is at the controls of a social-media machine that is launching the 15-year-old from Minnesota to Kazakhstan this month for the liftoff of the International Space Station's next crew.

    2. Buzz Aldrin's vision for journey to Mars
    3. Giant black hole may be cooking up meals
    4. Watch a 'ring of fire' solar eclipse online

Astronomers have detected five possible alien planets circling the star Tau Ceti, which is less than 12 light-years from Earth — a mere stone's throw in the cosmic scheme of things. One of the newfound worlds appears to orbit in Tau Ceti's habitable zone, a range of distances from a star where liquid water can exist on a planet's surface.

With a minimum mass just 4.3 times that of Earth, this potential planet would be the smallest yet found in the habitable zone of a sun-like star if it's confirmed, researchers said.

"This discovery is in keeping with our emerging view that virtually every star has planets, and that the galaxy must have many such potentially habitable Earth-sized planets," study co-author Steve Vogt, of the University of California, Santa Cruz, said in a statement. "They are everywhere, even right next door."

[ Gallery: 7 Potentially Habitable Exoplanets ]

The five planet candidates are all relatively small, with minimum masses ranging from 2 to 6.6 times that of Earth. The possibly habitable world, which completes one lap around Tau Ceti every 168 days, is unlikely to be a rocky planet like Earth, researchers said.

"It is impossible to tell the composition, but I do not consider this particular planet to be very likely to have a rocky surface," lead author Mikko Tuomi, of the University of Hertfordshire in England, told SPACE.com via email. "It might be a 'water world,' but at the moment it's anybody's guess."

Spotting signals in the noise
Tau Ceti is slightly smaller and less luminous than our sun. It lies 11.9 light-years away in the constellation Cetus (the Whale) and is visible with the naked eye in the night sky. Because of its proximity and sun-like nature, Tau Ceti has featured prominently in science fiction over the years.

Astronomers have searched for exoplanets around Tau Ceti before and turned up nothing. But in the new study, researchers were able to pull five possible planetary signals out from under a mountain of noise.

Tuomi and his team re-analyzed 6,000 observations of Tau Ceti made by three different spectrographs, instruments that allow researchers to detect the tiny gravitational wobbles orbiting planets induce in their parent stars.

The three instruments are the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), on the European Southern Observatory's 3.6-meter telescope in La Silla, Chile; the University College London Echelle Spectrograph (UCLES) on the Anglo-Australian Telescope in Siding Spring, Australia; and the High Resolution Echelle Spectrometer, or HIRES, on the 10-meter Keck telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

Using new analysis and modeling techniques, the team spotted the five faint signals, successfully separating them from noise caused by stellar activity and other factors.

"We pioneered new data modeling techniques by adding artificial signals to the data and testing our recovery of the signals with a variety of different approaches," Tuomi said in statement. "This significantly improved our noise modeling techniques and increased our ability to find low-mass planets."

The new analysis methods should aid the search for small planets, allowing more and more of them to be spotted throughout the galaxy, researchers said.

[ A Galaxy Full of Alien Planets (Infographic) ]

A nearby planetary system?
The five planets remain candidates at this point and will not become official discoveries until they're confirmed by further analysis or observations. And that's not a sure thing, researchers said.

"I am very confident that the three shortest periodicities are really there, but I cannot be that sure whether they are of planetary origin or some artifacts of insufficient noise modelling or stellar activity and/or magnetic cycles at this stage," Tuomi said, referring to the potential planets with orbital periods of 14, 35 and 94 days (compared to 168 days for the habitable zone candidate and 640 days for the most distantly orbiting world).

"The situation is even worse for the possible habitable zone candidate, because the very existence of that signal is uncertain, yet according to our detection criteria the signal is there and we cannot rule out the possibility that it indeed is of planetary origin," he added. "But we don't know what else it could be, either."

If the Tau Ceti planets do indeed exist, their proximity would make them prime targets for future instruments to study, researchers said.

"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," James Jenkins, of the Universidad de Chile and the University of Hertfordshire, said in a statement. "Planetary systems found around nearby stars close to our sun indicate that these systems are common in our Milky Way galaxy."

If confirmed, the Tau Ceti planets would not be the closest exoplanets to Earth. That title still goes to Alpha Centauri Bb, a roasting-hot, rocky world recently spotted just 4.3 light-years away, in the closest star system to our own.

The new study has been accepted for publication in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

Follow SPACE.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter@michaeldwallor SPACE.com @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebookand Google+.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

loading photos...
  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments