Universe Guide

Closest exoplanet found orbiting Proxima Centauri

The closest extrasolar Extrasolar Planet(Exoplanet) for short has been located. For years, scientists have been studying the star we know Proxima Centauri and its larger companion Rigil Kentaurus better known as Alpha Centauri. Whilst its been known that is a planet probably in orbit around the bigger yellow star, there has only been speculation about anything in orbit around the smaller red dwarf star until now. Scientists got the first clue as to there being a planet around Proxima Cenaturi in March 2000 but it took them 16 years until they were confident of their research to go public and say there is. Part of the problem of them not coming forward was false positives of star spots from red dwarves.

Scientists working at the European Southern Observatory in Chile have discovered an Earth-like planet in orbit round Proxima Centauri. Proxima Centauri is in the constellation of Centaurus which can be seen in the southern hemisphere, although the planet won't be visible by naked eye or amateur telescope. Like all other exoplanets that have currently been discovered, it has the rather obtuse name of Proxima Centauri b or just Proxima b for short. The letter after the name signifies when it was discovered, the first planet in orbit round the planet is known as b, not a followed by c, d.... Presumably if they ever found a massive solar system, they'd name it bb, bc etc. The planet being so close to the Sun zips round it (orbits) in a very short 11 and a bit days. You'd experience all four seasons in what would be fortnight on Earth. Hopefully they'll find other planets a little further out and a longer orbit.

In a billion years time, our Sun will no longer be able to support life as it grows into a red giant, we'd have to move away and find somewhere else. Even though it has a short year, Proxima will be around long after many stars including our Sun have died around. It is estimated the star will live for trillions of years so no more worrying about another planet to find.

The discovery makes it the closest exoplanet from us at a distance of about 4.1 Light Years. Travelling at the speed of light, it would still take four years to get to and four years to get back. Even given the sheer distance, it is the nearest star to us excluding the Sun. We don't yet have the technology for faster than light travel that the likes of the Millennium Falcon is able to do. The fastest satellite would take tens of thousands of years to get to so we won't be visiting it in our lifetime unless we break the laws of physics. At the moment, all we can do is wonder what the planet could look like. The below picture is an ESO/M. Kornmesser impressions of what the planet could look like.

There is a project going on at the moment with the backing and support of Prof. Stephen Hawking to send micro-satellites to that solar system and send back data. No humans will be going. The micro-satellites could possibly take 20 years to get to the target and then another couple of years to send the results back. In my life if they took off soon, we'd get results back whilst I'm still around.

Artists Impression of Proxima Centauri b in orbit

Any exoplanet that has been discovered increases the likelihood that we are not alone and that there are aliens out there ready to be discovered and communicate with. The planet is closer to Proxima than we are to the sun but because the star is dimmer than our own star, the Goldilocks Zone, the area round a star where life can exist on a planet is therefore closer. It is believed that water could exist on the planet, a big plus if we are to find life as all life on Earth requires water to survive. The artists impression makes the planet look barren and rocky, a little like Geonosis with a slight colour change.

Artists Impression of what Proxima Centauri B landscape could look like.

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