Proxima b was first discovered in August, creating considerable buzz due to the possibility it could harbor alien life. Now, a new study has added more valuable information on the exoplanet, claiming that it may be an “ocean planet,” and that it may actually have one gigantic ocean covering it. Could this be something straight out of the 1995 film Waterworld, or the planet Miller from 2014’s Interstellar?
Back in August, Phys.org interviewed Geographic Information Technology associate teaching professor Cordula Robinson, who explained that there’s a possibility alien life may be able to exist on Proxima b. She noted that the exoplanet is a rocky “Earth-like” planet that may have an atmosphere, but is most notably warm enough to ensure liquid water remains stable. As water is a requisite ingredient for life to be sustained on a planet, this piqued a lot of interest, as well as discussions on whether extraterrestrial life is a possibility or not.
“When we think about the cosmos—and the expansiveness of the universe—it almost defies intuition that the Earth is home to its only life form,” Robinson continued. “Yet direct, tangible, and predictable evidence to support such speculation has evaded us until now. Proxima b has the potential to change that and open inquiry into extraterrestrial existence all with a scientific premise.”
— TREND GIZMO (@TrendGizmo) October 9, 2016
Moving back to the present, a new study recently accepted by the Astrophysical Journal adds more color to the previous theories on Proxima b. French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) researchers were able to calculate the exoplanet’s size, as well as its surface features, and based on the data gleaned, it does have some similarities to Earth as an “ocean planet.”
The planet, as previously confirmed, orbits Proxima Centauri, which at a distance of four light-years away from Earth, is the closest star to the Sun. The CNRS team discovered that Proxima b is about 1.3 times more massive than Earth, and orbits its host star approximately 4.6 million miles away from it, right within its “temperate” zone. That’s a very close distance from its host, and only a tenth or so the distance that separates Mercury from our Sun. As for Proxima Centauri, the researchers noted that it is smaller than our Sun, and about a thousand times weaker.
All this points to Proxima b having the potential to host alien life, and the researchers admitted as much in a brief excerpt from its official statement, as quoted on Friday by Yahoo News in a report on the exoplanet.
“The planet may very well host liquid water on its surface, and therefore also some forms of life.”
A separate report from Gizmodo Australia further broke down the CNRS scientists’ findings on Proxima b, explaining that the exoplanet’s radius is about 0.94 to 1.4 times that of Earth’s radius. Should the radius be closer to the downside estimate (about 3,915 miles/6,300 kilometers), that would make the planet “very dense,” and suggest that it has a metallic core occupying two-thirds of its mass. This makes it highly possible Proxima b hosts “vast” oceans, with surface water likely taking up 0.05 percent of the planet’s mass, or more than twice Earth’s share of 0.02 percent.
— José Molina (@djchema78) October 8, 2016
But what if the radius is actually closer to the upside, meaning a radius of about 5,543 miles/8,920 kilometers? Gizmodo Australia says that is where “things get even more interesting,” as Proxima b would then be likely covered by a single, massive ocean. The planet would be equally split between a rocky core and that vast ocean, and would have a thin, Earth-like atmosphere. According to the CNRS team, that could add to the chances of Proxima b being habitable to alien life.
Still, Gizmodo Australia cautions that more research is needed, and that it’s too early for anyone to conclusively say that we aren’t alone in this universe.
“It’s easy to get excited about this result, but we need to learn a lot more about this planet before we jump to conclusions. The researchers based their models on the assumption that Proxima b harbours a thin atmosphere — but we actually don’t know what kind of atmosphere this planet has, or if it even has one.”
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