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Three Venuses

April 13, 2017

Venus is just beginning its long reign as the “morning star.” It’s quite low in the east as dawn begins to color the sky. It’s so bright, though, that if you have a clear horizon, it’s easy to pick out. It’ll remain in good view in the morning sky until after Thanksgiving.

Despite its beauty, Venus is a hellish world. Surface temperatures are hot enough to melt lead, and the atmosphere is dense and toxic. There’s nothing else like it in the solar system. But Venus-like worlds may be common in other star systems. In fact, a recent study found a system that could have two Venuses.

Wolf 1061 is just 14 light-years away — closer than all but a few dozen other stars. Yet it’s only one percent as bright as the Sun — so faint that you need a telescope to see it.

Three planets are known to orbit the star. All three probably are rocky worlds a bit bigger and heavier than Venus and Earth. One of them is so close to the star that it’s almost certainly like Venus. Another follows an orbit that’s so stretched out that the planet is quite hot for part of its year, and quite cold for the rest.

A third planet appears to spend about two-thirds of its year inside the habitable zone — the distance from the star where temperatures are just right for liquid water. But it spends the rest of the time closer than the habitable zone, where it’s hot. That may trigger conditions like those on Venus — keeping all three worlds of Wolf 1061 too uncomfortable for life.


Script by Damond Benningfield

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