Finding the nearest Earth-like exoplanet to our own may have been as easy — relatively speaking, of course — as training telescopes on the nearest star, Proxima Centauri. Astronomers did exactly that, according to German magazine Der Spiegel, and now say they have discovered a rocky planet orbiting the red dwarf star in the habitable zone.
Matt Wiliams at Universe Today reported August 15, relaying information from Der Spiegel, that astronomers at the European Southern Observatory (ESO), using a La Silla Observatory telescope in Chile, have discovered the closest Earth-like exoplanet to our Solar System. The magazine cited anonymous sources at ESO that claim that the newly discovered world in Earth-like, it orbits Proxima Centauri in its habitable zone (that “just right” orbital distance — nicknamed the “Goldilocks Zone” — from a given star that is considered optimal to sustain life as we understand it), and it is within Earth’s reach.
Der Spiegel reports the following.
“The still nameless planet is believed to be Earth-like and orbits at a distance to Proxima Centauri that could allow it to have liquid water on its surface—an important requirement for the emergence of life. Never before have scientists discovered a second Earth that is so close by.”
Proxima Centauri is 4.25 light years from Earth and is closer than any other star. It is a red dwarf and is part of a triple star system which includes Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B. The dimmest in terms of light emission, Proxima Centauri is an isolated star that exists outside of the Alpha Centauri binary.
So since Proxima Centauri is so close, how long would it take to get there? As it just so happens, Matt Williams tackled this very question just last week at Universe Today. He notes that there are several methods that could be employed to get to the nearest star, and now the nearest planet as well, some, like ion propulsion systems, taking tens of thousands of years to a few thousand years, depending upon the fuel source. But the fastest travel-time to Proxima Centauri would occur using the gravity assist method, where a spacecraft is provided extra speed by allowing the gravitational pull of an object (such as a planet) to slingshot the craft and increase its velocity. Thus far, NASA’s Helios 2 holds the record for the fastest spacecraft using the gravity assist method, topping out at 240,000 miles per hour. If a spacecraft could maintain that speed for the duration, it would still take 19,000 years to get to Proxima Centauri.
That’s what astronomers mean by “close by.” Remember, distance is relative…
Still, Williams notes in the more recent article that Project Starshot, the Breakthrough Initiatives endeavor endorsed by Stephen Hawking, has a laser-propelled spacecraft they are developing for a trip to Alpha Centauri. It is believed that the laser drive will be able to attain 20 percent the speed of light at its maximum velocity, thus making the trip to the nearest star system in just 20 years.
Attempts were made to obtain confirmation of the discovery of the nearest exoplanet — and nearest Earth-like extrasolar planet — but the ESO refused to comment. According to Der Spiegel‘s source, the ESO would make an announcement regarding the find at the end of August. It should be noted that the ESO is rightly cautious with this announcement, especially given that this is the same team making the Proxima Centauri that claimed to have found the nearest exoplanet to Earth back in 2012, a claim that was later discredited as a result of faulty data.
If the exoplanet discovery is confirmed, the finding would also bolster the work of astronomers who, according to Astrobiology magazine in 2012, constructed models showing that red dwarf stars might be the best places to look for habitable and Earth-like exoplanets because they are the most plentiful type of stars in the universe, not to mention being long-lived as well. A subsequent study in 2014, also reported in Astrobiology, suggested that red dwarfs could also be home to exoplanets that hold the best potential for discovering alien life.
Of course, as the Inquisitr posted earlier in the month, a more recent study suggests that there are more opportunities for discovering extraterrestrials, and such alien life might not evolve for quite a long while (billions of years), leaving humanity alone to explore the universe for some time.
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