In a stunning new discovery, scientists have found a potentially habitable new planet orbiting the Sun’s closest neighboring star. The planet, named Proxima b, orbits the star Proxima Centauri. Proxima b is 1.3 times larger than Earth and is only four light-years away, which is extremely close in astronomical distances. Still, it is 25 trillion miles away. The Earth-like planet could contain forms of life.
— Karl Tate (@phasepistol) August 24, 2016
The new Earth-like planet is in the so-called “habitable zone,” also called the “goldilocks zone,” meaning the planet is in just the right spot for life to possibly exist, according to Sky News. Temperatures are mild enough to allow for liquid water to form.
Unfortunately, Proxima b is too small to be seen visually by telescopes. Instead, the international team of scientists used a standard technique for finding new planets. They detected it indirectly using telescopes to calculate the gravitational pull on the star by the smaller rocky object orbiting it.
The new planet could be similar to Earth in many ways, but there are also major differences. Proxima b is only 4.6 million miles from its sun. That’s only one-twentieth the distance between the Earth and our own sun. A year on the planet would be only 11 days, as the closeness means it only takes that amount of time to circle Proxima Centauri. The planet also likely does not rotate, meaning that one side is always facing its sun while the other is always in darkness. It would also be bombarded with x-rays and ultraviolet light. Still, scientists say that life could be able to exist underground, reports CBC News.
Proxima b is one of more than 3,000 planets that have been discovered outside the Solar System in the last 20 years. An estimated 40 of the discoveries are in a zone that could possibly harbor life.
The star, Proxima Centauri, is also very different than our own sun. It’s called a red dwarf star and is much smaller and cooler than the sun. That is why a planet can orbit so closely and still have living organisms on it. Red dwarf-type stars are much more common than astronomers previously thought and are just as likely to contain life as ordinary size stars.
Proxima Centauri will live on as a star much longer than our Sun — perhaps trillions of years longer. That has led to speculation that new planet Proxima b could be a future candidate to house humanity after the sun dies out in five billion years.
— Arecibo Observatory (@NAICobservatory) August 24, 2016
There has recently been interest in sending a probe to the nearest star and its new planet found, National Geographic reports. Known as the Breakthrough Starshot project and led by Stephen Hawking and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, a team has been formed to research the possibility of crossing the massive distance quickly. One current idea is to send miniature spacecraft with multiple cameras at 20 percent of the speed of light. The intent is to launch the probes in the next few decades. It would still take 20 years to reach the system at that speed. Another four years would be needed for photos to be sent back to Earth.
There are also signs that another planet could be circling in the same system. It would likely be much larger than Earth, but more research will be necessary. In the meantime, further work is needed on Proxima b. There are many outstanding questions such as if the planet has an atmosphere and if there is water on the surface, as well as if it has some sort of protective magnetic field, which would make the possibility of life much higher.
There are estimates that there could be billions of Earth-like planets in our Milky Way galaxy. Many of these could potentially have some type of life on them. It’s a significant discovery that there is one literally right next door to us cosmically.
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