After decades of searching the cosmos for possible Earth-like planets, astronomers have now confirmed the existence of a possible habitable world orbiting the star nearest to us in the universe.
Astronomers from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) announced Wednesday that they’ve observed a rocky Earth-like planet in the goldilocks habitable zone around nearby Proxima Centauri, astronomer Ansgar Reiners told CNN.
“The good news is that it is so close. It is not only nice for having it in our neighborhood, but it’s a dream come true for astronomers if we think about follow-up observation.”
So far, we don’t know much about the alien world, dubbed Proxima b. It orbits a small red dwarf star, which is much dimmer than our sun, but because of its placement in the habitable goldilocks zone it could potentially have liquid water on its surface.
The exoplanet is .24 light years away from the two stars of Alpha Centauri and is considered part of that system; the constellation is mainly visible from the southern hemisphere.
Proxima b is 4.25 light years away from our sun, measures 1.3 times the size of Earth, and orbits its star every 11.2 days, but because its red dwarf star is so dim, the Earth-like planet probably exists in constant twilight.
Any plants or animals that survive on its surface are probably much different from those found on Earth. Plants on Proxima b would probably have darkly colored or black leaves that would enable them to absorb the dark star’s light in photosynthesis.
Researchers also aren’t sure if the Earth-like planet has an atmosphere, which would affect everything from the surface temperature to the dangerous radiation received from the nearby red dwarf, Reiners told CNN.
“Within the field of exoplants, [researchers] have recently realized that looking for planets around M dwarves is what is going to be the most spectacular, because you can find these plants in the liquid water zone more easily than other stars.”
An anonymous astronomer at the ESO leaked news of the Earth-like planet’s discovery earlier this month to the German magazine Der Spiegel, but the observatory refused to confirm the rumor possibly because of a mistake a couple years ago.
“It was hard work finding the tiny celestial body. We were at the limits of what is technologically possible when it comes to measurements.”
In 2012, the observatory announced they had discovered an Earth-like planet around nearby Alpha Centauri B, but later research showed the planet, Alpha Centauri Bb, most probably didn’t exist.
Wednesday’s announcement gives astronomers hope that one day robotic probes could zoom past the nearby Earth-like planet and give researchers a close-up view of the alien world.
Using Stephen Hawking’s Breakthrough Starshot project, a fleet of small nanocraft could reach the Earth-like world around Proxima Centauri in 15 years.
The project, funded by billionaire Yuri Milner, aims to launch a fleet of small nanocraft into space and power them using a special solar sail designed to catch light beamed from Earth in ground-based lasers.
The small, wafer-thin ships could accelerate to 30 percent the speed of light and pass Mars in three days, reaching Alpha Proxima in about 15 years; today’s spaceships would take 30,000 years to make the same trip, Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb told the New York Times.
“We will definitely aim at Proxima. This is like finding prime real estate in our neighborhood.”
There are some problems with Starshot Breakthrough that still need to be worked out, however: there’s no way to slow the nanocraft down once they reach the Earth-like planet, nor is there a plan to protect the tiny speeding ships from space debris.
What do you think of the news that astronomers have found a possible Earth-like planet around the star closest to us in the universe?
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