Scientists have discovered a planet relatively close to Earth that could be habitable. While investigating Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our planet situated nearly 25 trillion miles away, an international team of researchers from Queen Mary, University of London observed an Earth-sized planet orbiting the star.
What makes this planet, called Proxima b, unique is that it is rocky like Earth and could have liquid water on its surface. These factors suggest that the planet could be habitable.
“There is a reasonable expectation that this planet might be able to host life, yes,” said Guillem Anglada-Escudé, lead author of the study, published his findings in the journal Nature.
While the finding is huge, scientists know very little about the planet. What they do know is that it is at least 1.3 times the mass of Earth and likely has a temperature of -40 degrees Fahrenheit. If there is an atmosphere, those temperatures would be warmer. (In comparison, Earth would have -20 or -30 degrees Fahrenheit without an atmosphere or ocean.) Scientists believe it is capable of having water, but there is no hard evidence of that yet.
“Finding out that the nearest star to the sun hosts not just a planet, not just an Earth-sized planet, but one which is in the right location that it could support life - and there are a lot of caveats there - really underscores that not only are planets very common in our galaxy, but potentially habitable planets are common,” said Eamonn Kerins, an astrophysicist at Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, to The Guardian.
The planet was discovered while gathering data at the European Southern Observatory in Chile on light emitted from Proxima Centauri. The researchers measured how the star was moving based on the color of light detected since bluer light is detected with the star moves towards Earth and redder light when it moves away.
Despite being the nearest planet of the thousands of exoplanets, Proxima b is still quite far from Earth, as it is 4.2 light years away. Consider this: a spacecraft using existing technology would take thousands of years to reach Proxima.
"This planet is at 5% of the Earth's distance from the Sun. However, Proxima is 1,000 times fainter than the Sun. So the flux - the energy - reaching Proxima b is about 70% of what the Earth receives. It's like taking Earth a bit further away, but it's comparable," said Anglada-Escudé to the BBC.
For now, life on Proxima b is merely science fiction, but the researchers hope their work will be carried on.
"We hope these findings inspire future generations to keep looking beyond the stars," said Anglada-Escudé in a statement. "The search for life on Proxima b comes next.”