A rocky planet orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri could be our new home, according to scientists. In a discovery that’s been rumored for a few weeks, but was just announced today, the European Southern Observatory has discovered a habitable planet which is pretty much next door (on a galactic scale.)
Proxima b sits about four light years away. That beats the previous best candidate, Kepler 452b, which was 1,400 light years away. In fact, the planet is so close that scientists hope to be able to send humans or drones to explore it within a few generations.
Dr Guillem Anglada-Escude, from Queen Mary University of London, said:
“Succeeding in the search for the nearest terrestrial planet beyond the solar system has been an experience of a lifetime, and has drawn on the dedication and passion of a number
of international researchers.”
“We hope these findings inspire future generations to keep looking beyond the stars. The search for life on Proxima b comes next.”
While scientists don’t know all that much about the planet just yet, here’s what they do know.
The planet orbits in the habitable zone around its sun, meaning that while nothing is certain, it should be able to sustain life. A year on Proxima b is a lot shorter, 11.2 days, because the planet sits just 5% as far away from its star as we do from ours. But the star is much dimmer than ours, meaning that alien life is probably still present.
But because it’s so close to the star, the planet is constantly bombarded with powerful ultraviolet rays and X-rays. If anything lives there, it would have had to have learned to cope with the radiation.
If the planet has an atmosphere, which is highly likely, then the chances are that it also has water.
The new world is just slightly bigger than Earth. The new planet’s star, Proxima Centauri, has been heavily studied in the past because it’s the nearest one to our solar system.
Proxima Centauri is predicted to exist for several hundreds or thousands of times longer than the Sun, which is eventually expected to die.
The planet was found by looking at data gathered by European Southern Observatory telescopes between 2000 and 2014. Inconsistencies in the movement of the star suggested that the gravitational pull of an orbiting planet was at work.
Dr John Barnes, one of more than 30 researchers involved, said:
“Once we had established that the wobble wasn’t caused by star spots, we knew that that there must be a planet orbiting within a zone where water could exist, which is really exciting.”
“If further research concludes that the conditions of its atmosphere are suitable to support life, this is arguably one of the most important scientific discoveries we will ever make.”
Hopefully we don’t ruin this one too.