WASHINGTON - Exoplanets, or planets outside of our own solar system, are nothing new to science. Astronomers have found thousands of them since the late 1980s. However the discovery a new exoplanet on Wednesday has scientist around the world buzzing, as it orbits a star in our own stellar neighborhood.
The one thing we certainly know about space is just how “spacious” it is. The moon may be the largest object in our night sky, but it is over 200,000 miles away. The sun is nearly 93 million miles away, far enough that it takes light about 8 minutes to reach us on earth. The nearest neighbor to the sun, a star called Proxima Centauri, is 4.2 light years away…or about 25 trillion miles!
The discovery of a planet orbiting the closest star to earth outside of the sun is an exciting one. An international team of scientists and astronomers announced their findings in London yesterday. The planet known as Proxima b, which is about 30% larger than earth, is believed to lie within a special zone around the star known as the “habitable zone”. This is a distance that is safe enough from the parent star to allow for liquid water on the planet’s surface, which could potentially harbor life.
While the possibility of life is exciting, it is far from a guarantee as the research team does have many concerns. While participating in an “Ask Me Anything” on the popular website Reddit, scientist expressed concerns with planets distance from its parent star. Chief among these is the fact that it orbits its star at a distance eight times closer than the planet Mercury orbits our own sun. Despite being in the habitable zone, at such a close distance it is likely the solar winds from the star have stripped the planet of its atmosphere potentially rendering its surface barren. “Calculations show that Proxima b could have lost about one ocean's worth of water during the first few 100 million years” they said in the interview.
The real buzz circulating with the discovery is just how close it is when talking about the large distances common in space. At only 4.3 light years away, it is close enough that direct imaging of the planet may soon be possible from here on earth. “The next generation of huge telescopes coming in the 2020s, like the Thirty Meter Telescope and the European Extremely Large Telescope, are supposed to have [a high enough] resolution that they might actually be able to separate the planet from the star” said the scientists.
While imaging the planet may be in the not-too-distant future, actually traveling there still has several obstacles to overcome. “With current technology it would take at least 81,000 years to get to Proxima Centauri” the team of astronomers stated. There is hope that this journey may be greatly reduced in the future.
A project known as Breakthrough Starshot is in its infantile stages, but hopes someday to be able to send tiny nanocrafts at speeds up to 100 million miles per hour, which would cut the time needed to reach the Alpha Centauri star system and Proxima b to around 20 years.