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Is Proxima B in Alpha Centauri Really Habitable?

Sep 01, 2016 04:50 AM EDT
The location of Proxima Centauri in the southern skies
The scientific community is now asking, is Proxima B really habitable?
(Photo : Y. Beletsky (LCO)/ESO/ESA/NASA/M. Zamani/Wikimedia Commons)

The search for another Earth led scientists to discover Proxima b, a potentially habitable exoplanet orbiting the red dwarf star called Proxima Centauri.

 Proxima Centauri is located at Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to Earth at only 4 billion light-years away. Last Aug. 24, the European Space Observatory (ESO) announced that they found clear evidence that an Earth-like, potentially habitable planet orbits a star in Alpha Centauri.

The scientific community rejoiced the discovery of what could be another Earth. But after the announcement was made, many are asking, is Proxima b really habitable?

Cosmologist Stephen Hawking with his partner Yuri Milner is planning to conduct a flyby to Proxima b. Their project Breakthrough Starshot is already bound to Alpha Centauri even before Proxima b was discovered. The recent discovery led to changes in their plans that now include a flyby of the planet. Now that it is established that the planet might be habitable, the next step is to work towards proving or disproving the theory.

Based on the discovery, the planet has the right orbit to allow liquid water to exist. Water is one of the key ingredients to life, so finding water may mean there are signs of life in Proxima b, making it a candidate for the search for alien life forms and microorganisms.

But experts in various scientific fields from the University of Washington's Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL) agree that if there is water on Proxima b, it has evolved very differently from Earth.

However, it is very early to tell if it is indeed habitable since Proxima b is just newly discovered and very little fact about it is known. "The short answer is, it's complicated," Rory Barnes, assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Washington said in a statement. "Our observations are few, and what we do know allows for a dizzying array of possibilities," Barnes added.

Today, some facts about Proxima b is known to astronomers. The potentially habitable planet orbits its star every 11 days and is 12 times bigger than the Sun. Its sun, Proxima Centauri, is also dimmer than the Earth's Sun, placing Proxima b in a "habitable zone."

Barnes noted that it is important to ask pertinent questions pertaining to the habitability of Proxima b as these questions will initiate probes to find in Proxima b can indeed be the next Earth.


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