Let’s look at a second red dwarf planet in this small series on such, this one being Wolf 1069b. I want to mention it partly because of the prior post on K2-415b, where we had the good fortune to be dealing with a transiting world around an M-dwarf that should be useful in future atmospheric characterization efforts. Wolf 1069b, by contrast, was found by radial velocity methods, and I’m less interested in whether or not it’s in a ‘habitable’ orbit than in the system architecture here, which raises questions.

This work, recounted in a recent paper in Astronomy & Astrophysics, describes a planet that is not just Earth-sized, as is K2-415b, but roughly equivalent to Earth in mass, making a future search for biosignatures interesting once we have the capability of collecting photons directly from the planet. If the planet has an atmosphere, argue the authors of the paper, its surface temperature could reach 13 degrees Celsius, certainly a comfortable temperature for liquid water. A putative atmosphere would also shield the world from harmful radiation from the host star, although Wolf 1069 appears so far to be an unusually quiescent M-dwarf.

In fact, the lack of distorting surface activity on the star makes possible a high degree of accuracy in the radial velocity measurements here. The data, pulled in by one of the two CARMENES spectrographs, were taken by Diana Kossakowski (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg), who is lead author of the paper on this work, and colleagues. The CARMENES instruments operate with the 3.5-metre telescope of the Calar Alto Observatory near Almería in southern Spain, and Kossakowski and team have been working the numbers on Wolf 1069 for the past four years.

Image: The figure shows measurements of the velocities at which the star Wolf 1069 moves towards or away from us by the mean. The measuring points were arranged in such a way that they depict the orbital period of the planet. This shows the tiny but significant variation in motion caused by the planet 1.3 times the mass of Earth orbiting in 15.56 days, and is illustrated by the gray line with the black dots. Credit: © D. Kossakowski et. al. from A&A 2023).

CARMENES is itself a research consortium (the Calar Alto high-Resolution search for M dwarfs with Exoearths with Near-infrared and optical Échelle Spectrographs program). The eleven German and Spanish institutions involved are focusing on Earth-like exoplanets near M-dwarfs, in other words, and I think we can expect the first doubtlessly controversial findings related to biomarkers will emerge on such worlds.

Wolf 1069b is on a 15.6 day orbit around an M-dwarf about 30 light years away in Cygnus. That distance is, of course, intriguing as we build the catalog for nearby worlds for future study of biomarkers or, one day, probes; the planet counts as the sixth-closest Earth mass world in a habitable zone orbit (the others are Proxima Centauri b, GJ 1061 d, Teegarden’s Star c, and GJ 1002 b and c). Keep in mind that only 1.5 percent of all the more than 5000 exoplanets yet detected have masses below two Earth masses – K2-415b, for all its interest, evidently weighs in at three.

Tidal lock is likely, though perhaps not a show-stopper for life, especially if the early indications of Wolf 1069’s low levels of activity are born out by future observation, and if an atmosphere is indeed present (without one, the authors estimate, the surface temperature would be 250 K, or -23 °C, as opposed to the + 13 °C mentioned above). So that interesting scenario of daylight (or night) that goes on forever emerges here.

Image: Simulated surface temperature map of Wolf 1069 b, assuming a modern Earth-like atmosphere. The map is centered at a point that always faces the central star. The temperatures are given in Kelvin (K). 273.15 K corresponds to 0 °C. Liquid water would be possible on the planet’s surface inside the red line. Credit: © Kossakowski et al. (2023) / MPIA.

But it’s something that Max Planck Institute for Astronomy scientist Remo Burn said that catches my eye:

“Our computer simulations show that about 5% of all evolving planetary systems around low-mass stars, such as Wolf 1069, end up with a single detectable planet. The simulations also reveal a stage of violent encounters with planetary embryos during the construction of the planetary system, leading to occasional catastrophic impacts,”

That’s a noteworthy thought, for such impacts could generate a planetary core that remains liquid today, resulting in a global magnetic field that would offer further shielding effects from stellar activity. The question would be whether Wolf 1069b really is alone, and on this the results are simply not in. What the researchers have been able to do is to exclude additional planets of Earth mass or more and orbital periods of less than 10 days. What they cannot do yet is rule out planets on wider orbits.

If alone around its star, Wolf 1069b is the only one of the six Earth-mass planets in habitable zones nearest to Earth that is found without an inner planet keeping it company. Note that the mass of Wolf 1069 is 0.167±0.011 solar masses. And now let’s turn to the paper:

This notion is supported by the works of Burn et al. (2021), Mulders et al. (2021), and Schlecker et al. (2021), where we expect a lower planet occurrence rate for stars with M* < 0.2 M? than for stars with 0.2 M? < M* < 0.5 M? for both the pebble and core accretion scenarios.

The authors run this out on a rather lengthy speculative thread:

Granted, these are theoretical predictions as more observation-based evidence is required to confirm this, and Wolf 1069b could still be accompanied by closer-in and outer planets. Nevertheless, the concept that only one planet survives is predicted by formation models if there were at least one giant impact at the late stage. This would enhance the chance of having a massive moon similar to the Earth and might also stir up the interior of the planet to prevent stratification and sustain a magnetic field (e.g., Jacobson et al. 2017). As remote as this appears, the search for exo-moons is no longer so far-fetched in recent times (e.g., Martínez-Rodríguez et al. 2019; Dobos et al. 2022).”

In the absence of data on these matters, speculation is welcome, but I can only imagine that when we get the right instrumentation online to make direct observations of planets like Wolf 1069b, we’re going to find more than our share of surprises. Whether or not an exo-moon hinting at an impact hinting at a magnetic field is one of them remains to be seen. A lot of ‘ifs’ creep into discussions of ‘habitable’ worlds. Would a tidally locked red dwarf planet look something like the speculation we see below?

Image: Artist’s conception of a rocky Earth-mass exoplanet like Wolf 1069 b orbiting a red dwarf star. If the planet had retained its atmosphere, chances are high that it would feature liquid water and habitable conditions over a wide area of its dayside. Credit: © NASA/Ames Research Center/Daniel Rutter.

The paper is Kossakowski et al., “The CARMENES search for exoplanets around M dwarfs Wolf 1069 b: Earth-mass planet in the habitable zone of a nearby, very low-mass star,” Astronomy & Astrophysics Vol. 670, A84 (10 February 2023). Full text.