Are We Alone?
In the far reaches of space, orbiting the star Proxima Centauri, is a new planet similar to Earth. It’s not everyday a new world is discovered in our solar system, so it’s no big surprise that Proxima b is drawing the attention of Earthlings everywhere. But that isn’t the only reason the new planet is so intriguing; in fact, there are a handful of things that make this little rock unique. Phys.org explains that the planet is very atmospherically similar to Earth and may be warm enough to hold liquid water. This may not sound like a big deal, but when you consider that life cannot happen without water, it puts things in a whole new perspective.
Scientists have discovered an Earth-like planet near our sun's closest neighbor. Could Proxima b support life? pic.twitter.com/EZmFS090Zc
— CNET (@CNET) August 29, 2016
Scientists had previously held out hope that Mars might also have the requirements for life, but as the Daily Mail notes an Ice Age on the Red Planet makes that impossible at the moment. Despite being called “Earth’s twin,” Mars is probably still too harsh for life. The other planets are also less hospitable than this newest member due to extreme temperatures in both directions and probably would not be enough to support life.
In A Universe Of Rocks, One Planet Stands Alone
Thousands of other so-called “exoplanets” have been discovered orbiting Earth, but none of them seem to interest scientists quite as much as this one. Could it finally prove what scientists have thought for so long? Could life be possible–or even probable-in outer space? Read on.
Just The Facts, Ma’am
The new planet is 4.22 Light Years away from Earth’s sun, making it the closest neighbor to Earth, as Space will tell you. The newly-discovered world is in the constellation Centaurus, from which its mother star gets its name. Centauri, the star which the new rock orbits, is also a similar age to the sun (Centauri being 4.85 billion years old to our sun’s 4.6 billion). Stars go through a variety of stages during their life that changes the amount of light they can give. Therefore, a planet which has a star close in age to the sun is good news for the potential to support life.
Exciting stuff–we'll be able to figure out if Proxima b has an atmosphere in just a few years: https://t.co/HxVh3BQnLt
— Maddie Stone (@themadstone) August 30, 2016
NASA Chimes In
It’s also huge news for NASA, needless to say. Oliver Guyon, who works for the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, CA, called the discovery “extremely exciting” and a “game-changer” since the planet is in the Habitable Zone and so close to Earth. NASA mentions that the team discovered the new planet by following “wobbles” in Alpha Centauri, and seem to think that Proxima is 1.3 times the mass of Earth. This could mean there are other, smaller, exoplanets that revolve around Proxima b as well (Possibly a twin of Earth’s moon?)
To put things in perspective, Earth has a mass that’s about 81 times that of our Moon. That means Proxima is a heavy-hitter. Additionally, the new rock takes 11.2 days to orbit its star, which means one day on Proxima is approximately 11 of our Earth days (if only there were schools on Proxima).
Prototypes for space habitats are already in development, and some companies are beginning to offer guided tours through space for big bucks, so it’s not entirely far-fetched that Proxima could one day be habitable. NASA has been looking for a long time, so it’s not every day they get so excited over a development like this.
You'd all probably freak out: What would happen if we found life on Proxima b? https://t.co/HFmQlG1KSr
— HiRISE (NASA) (@HiRISE) August 30, 2016
Going Its Own Way
Some scientists aren’t so sure that Proxima could contain life, though. As Gizmodo found, Proxima’s close orbit to its sun at 4.6 million miles can make it susceptible to solar winds that destroy its atmosphere. The atmosphere of a planet can be rebuilt, but there’s no guarantee the cosmic events needed to do so would occur. Even if Proxima did rebuild, it could take many, many years or millennia. Not enough is known about Proxima or its mother star just yet, but the possibilities are exciting. What do you think scientists will discover? Stay tuned.
[Photo by E. Peng/JHU/NOAO/Getty Images]