The prospect of finding a planet that supports life and is similar to our own has always been high on scientists’ to-do-lists. For years, astronomers have identified potential habitable planets, only to discover that they’re either too hard to study due to their distance from Earth, or that they don’t meet initial expectations. That is, until now.
An international team of scientists and astronomers, led by researchers from Queen Mary, the University of London, have today announced that through the use of European Southern Observatory Telescopes, they’ve found evidence of an orbiting planet located within the habitable area of Proxima Centauri. Being in this habitable area means that the planet, which they named Proxima B, is not too hot or too cold to host water.
Scientists find this discovery extremely promising, as Proxima Centauri is the closest zone to our Sun and Proxima B is now the closest habitable planet to Earth anyone has ever discovered. However, it’s still four light years away, so it’s unlikely we’ll make it there any time soon. On the other hand, scientists predict that spacecraft projects could potentially reach the planet before the end of this century.
Proxima B’s surface temperature is -40ºC, which isn’t exactly the hottest climate. But hey, experts have done their research and they know what they’re talking about. “It seems cold, but then if you look at the same numbers for Earth you would get minus 20, minus 30ºC,” said Guillem Anglada-Escudé, co-author of the research. “What keeps Earth warm is basically that it has an atmosphere and an ocean.” In other words, if the planet has sufficient atmospheric pressure, it could be warmer than we think.
Little is known about Proxima B, but scientists have been able to deduce some basics. According to their data, it’s about 1.3 times the size of Earth, and it only orbits its star every 11 days. It’s also likely that due to gravitational forces, the same side will always be facing the star – leaving the other side in constant darkness. This could mean that it does not experience seasons like we do on Earth.
The team had been observing Proxima Centauri this year in conjunction with the Pale Red Dot Campaign, which was created to search for the presence of a planet. Data from the Pale Red Dot Project was combined with previous findings from ESO facilities, which resulted in the discovery of Proxima B.
“The first hints of a possible planet were spotted back in 2013, but the detection was not convincing,” Anglada-Escudé said. “Since then we have worked hard to get further observations off the ground with help from ESO and others. The recent Pale Red Dot campaign has been about two years in the planning.”
The research is being labelled as ‘one of the largest astronomical discoveries of the century’ and the findings have been published in the Nature Journal.
Although we don’t know much about Proxima B yet, it is now the prime target regarding life outside of our solar system. We have a strong feeling that this is only the beginning.