Earth-sized Planet Found Orbiting Proxima Centauri

Star Gazing
Image Credit: Greg Rakozy

For generations, mankind has dreamed of exploring new worlds and finding life elsewhere. While the Apollo 11 mission was monumental for being the first time that a human being had set foot on another planetary body, now it’s possible that some of us may live to see yet another new first in space exploration–the possible discovery of life on another planet.

An Amazing Discovery

Scientists have discovered a planet with approximately 1.3 times the mass of Earth orbiting Proxima Centauri, our sun’s nearest star neighbor. Based on what scientists have observed about the planet located in constellation of Centaurus, which has been called Proxima Centauri b, they believe that conditions may be ripe there to support life. Red-brown in color due to the light given off by the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the planet makes a complete orbit around its sun once every 11.2 days, meaning if anything does call the place home, their “years” are a fraction of the length of our own.

Meet the Proxima Planet

Called Proxima b for short, discovery of the exoplanet was confirmed on 24th August 2016 by a team of researchers led by astronomer Guillem Anglada-Escudé at Queen Mary University of London. The planet was visible for 20 minutes every evening from January 19th to March 31st, and after being cross referenced with data from earlier studies, the team was certain they were viewing an exoplanet.

Perfect Timing

The discovery of a planet located near to Proxima Centauri couldn’t have come at a much better time for scientist. The Breakthrough Starshot initiative recently made it known that they are currently developing tiny probes that will be propelled by lasers. Because of their small speed and advanced systems, the vessels will be able to travel at one-fifth of the speed of light. Consequently, once the technology is complete, these probes will be able to make the 4.243 light year, or 24.94 trillion mile journey to Proxima b in just 20 years, sending back information about what or who might be dwelling there.

Some Are Skeptical

Although Proxima b has some promising features, some scientists caution that we might be jumping to conclusions about its ability to support life. OK, the planet’s orbit is far enough from its sun that any water that might exist would not evaporate, but there might be other barriers to living organisms prospering.

One such barrier is that Proxima b is likely tidally locked to the star Proxima Centauri, meaning that the planet will orbit without variations in the tilt of its axis. As a result, one half of it might be scorched by constant sunlight, and the other might be frigidly cold like year-round winter. Plus, Proxima Centauri could also be emitting x-ray flares that would kill any developing life. We also do not have enough information about the planet to know if there is any chance of it having an atmosphere. If it doesn’t it would similar to Mars with little protection from the radiation emitted by its sun.

Regardless of whether or not Proxima b turns out to be inhabitable, its discovery is sure to further the study and exploration of exoplanets, which could then lead us to finding even more places where extraterrestrial life may exist in the universe.

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