by CRYSTAL ROSENE
2016 proved to be a phenomenal year for breakthroughs and progress in astronomy and astrophysics. While perusing several recaps of the year’s accomplishments, I came across one discovery that resonated with me in particular. A few months ago, I wrote a detailed article about the possibilities of life on other planets, and the necessary conditions for survival. So I was thrilled to find out that a new planet, designated Proxima b, was just discovered in August of 2016.
The finding of new planets isn’t really anything new; in fact, Wikipedia says there are 3560 confirmed exoplanets (planets orbiting stars other than our Sun) and 2671 confirmed planetary systems, as of January 12, 2017. But what is exciting is that Proxima b is very near to us, and could possibly be Earth-like. The planet was discovered by researchers at the European Southern Observatory in Chile, who had been monitoring the ‘wobble’ of its parent star for the last 16 years. It was found to be orbiting the nearest star to Earth, a red dwarf called Proxima Centauri, which is only 4.22 light years away – a ‘small’ distance on the cosmic scale. For reference, the distance from Earth to Pluto is approximately 0.0008 light years, so Proxima b is roughly 5000 times the distance from us to Pluto.
As Proxima Centauri is the closest star to the Sun, Proxima b is very likely the closest ‘neighbour’ that we have, and possibly even within the realm of eventual travel to it. The fastest spacecraft ever launched from Earth has a speed of about 60 000 km/hr, so travelling at this speed, it would take approximately 75 000 years to get to Proxima b. Clearly, we had better get started…
What would we find once we finally get there? This is where there is still some uncertainty. According to one article, scientists still don’t know whether or not the planet is terrestrial or gaseous. However, a different article states that it’s proximity to its parent star likely points to it being rocky like Earth. This proximity also leads researchers to believe that Proxima b is likely ‘tidally locked’ to Proxima Centauri, meaning the same face of the planet is always facing the star.
Proxima b is also about 1.3 times the mass of Earth, and is orbiting Proxima Centauri at a distance that falls within the star’s “habitable zone”, which describes the temperature zone at which liquid or frozen water can remain on the planet. This is an encouraging development, as liquid water is essential for life to survive.
There are still many questions surrounding the planet, as there is only so much detailed