New models suggest that the rocky planet dubbed “Proxima b” could potentially support human life.
The planet, first discovered by the European Southern Observatory (ESO), was found orbiting the closest star to Earth—apart from the Sun—Proxima Centauri. Tiny Doppler shifts indicated the presence of Proxima b as having at least 1.3 times the mass of Earth, orbiting only 5 percent of the Earth-Sun distance away from Proxima Centauri. Despite the fact that the exoplanet is orbiting so close to its star, it still remains within the habitable zone around the star.
What this means: Proxima b’s temperature could be conducive to hosting liquid water.
Regardless of this finding, though, scientists are still hesitant to declare the planet completely habitable due to the fact that Proxima b’s climate conditions and atmospheric makeup are still wholly unknown. According to the ESO, though, it is “unlikely that Proxima b has seasons.”
Scientists have continued to run simulations and models that test the various conditions of the planet, including its ability to host water and the possible compounds that could compose its atmosphere. As Science Magazine reports, one of these tests recently included a more detailed climate model designed for Earth and ran it along with the known parameters of Proxima b. The model— which tried out an atmosphere closely resembling that of Earth’s in its nitrogen and carbon dioxide makeup— revealed the planet to have an “even wider range of circumstances in which Proxima b could have liquid water.”
Although the recent findings regarding Proxima b’s ability to host life are encouraging to many scientists, the planet, itself, is not a surprise discovery. In fact, there is actually quite a large number of small exoplanets orbiting small stars according to Sara Seager, a planetary science and physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge. Due to the fact that these planets are lightyears away from our solar system, though, it was more like a stroke of luck that Proxima b was even found, in the first place.
As early as next year, NASA could be powering up a telescope with the capability to glimpse Proxima b up-close and personal in all of its particular glory. Up until that point in time, though, we will simply have to rely on the results of continued simulations to keep us up-to-date with the newly-discovered exoplanet.
Top image by European Southern Observatory, CC BY SA 2.0
Natalie Wickstrom is a freelance writer based in Athens, Georgia. She probably wrote this piece to the tune of a movie score whilst chewing gum.