(CN) — As climate change and turbulent world politics wreak havoc on planet Earth, people have looked to the stars for a hospitable planet to call our new home. As it turns out, such a planet may be closer than we expected.
Using advanced telescopes, astronomers have found clear evidence of a planet orbiting the star closest to Earth, Proxima Centauri.
In an article that will be published Aug. 25 — the 35th anniversary of the Voyager 2 making its closest approach to Saturn — astronomers present findings of Proxima b, a planet near enough to send spacecraft and with environmental conditions that indicate it may be hospitable for humans.
The existence of Proxima b became apparent to astronomers as they observed Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf star that is too faint to see with the naked eye.
“The first hints of a possible planet were spotted back in 2013, but the detection was not convincing. Since then we have worked hard to get further observations off the ground with help from European Southern Observatory and others. The recent Pale Red Dot campaign has been about two years in the planning,” said Guillem Anglada-Escude, lead author of a study on the discovery.
The Pale Red Dot campaign is an outreach project that aims to show the public how scientists are searching for Earth-like planets that are relatively close to Earth. The name is a reference to a picture of the inner Solar System released by Voyager 1 in 1990, in which Earth was just a pale blue dot.
Astronomers shared updates with the public on the campaign’s website and social media between January and April of this year, which were accompanied by outreach articles written by experts from around the world.
However, it was difficult for astronomers to establish definitive proof of Proxima b’s presence since red dwarfs like Proxima Centauri are active stars and can behave in ways that mimic the presence of a planet.
“I kept checking the consistency of the signal every single day during the 60 nights of the Pale Red Dot campaign. The first 10 were promising, the first 20 were consistent with expectations, and at 30 days the result was pretty much definitive, so we started drafting the paper!” said Anglada-Escude.
The team observed Proxima Centauri was at times approaching and receding from Earth at about five kilometers per hour, a normal human walking pace. This pattern seems to repeat with a period of 11.2 days, according to the astronomers.
While Proxima b orbits closer to Proxima Centauri than Mercury does to the sun, Proxima Centauri is much fainter. As a result, Proxima b lies within the habitable zone and has an estimated surface temperature that would allow for the presence of liquid water.
On the other hand, the conditions on the surface may be affected by the ultraviolet and X-ray flares from the star, which would be far more intense than the Earth experiences from the sun.
Art: European Southern Observatory/M. Kornmesser
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