Astronomers have found three Earth-sized planets orbiting the star GJ 1061 about 17 light-years away from Earth. One might be a habitable type world.

A team of researchers from Europe and Chile has described their study in a paper uploaded to the arXiv preprint server. They will soon publish it in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Based on observations the three planets appear to be at least 1.4 to 1.8 times the mass of Earth. All of them orbit their star every three to 13 days, meaning the entire system would fit well within Mercury’s 88-day orbit of the Sun.

GJ1061 is a small, low-mass (M dwarf) star. It is similar to Proxima Centauri, the star closest to Earth, which also hosts a planet. But GJ 1061 has low volatility, suggesting it might have habitable planets.

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The planet orbiting the star every 13 days, dubbed planet d, is most interesting to scientists. That’s because it falls within the star’s habitable zone where liquid water could exist on the surface.

But researchers also note that, unfortunately, M dwarf stars tend to have a volatile history. So, if a close-orbit planet, like planet d, was blasted with radiation for millions of years, it is not likely suitable to harbor life now.

“We are now one step closer [to] getting a census of rocky planets in the solar neighborhood,” said Ignasi Ribas, a co-author on the new paper and researcher at the Institute of Space Sciences in Barcelona, Spain.

Using data from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile the researchers used the radial velocity method to detect the presence of planets. The technique uses tiny wobbles in a star’s orbit to reveal the gravitational presence of exoplanets. The researchers note that historically, astronomers used the technique only to detect large planets. However, recent improvements have allowed for finding smaller ones as well.

“It’s a great discovery of course, but it doesn’t surprise me,” said Michael Endl, an astronomer at the University of Texas at Austin, who was not involved with the new research. “Since NASA’s Kepler mission we basically know that small planets are abundant around those very cool and small stars.”

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