Is there a second earth?
Scientists hoping to find evidence of life on other worlds may have found a new and close by planet with Earth-like conditions, potentially altering upcoming plans for space exploration.
German weekly Der Spiegel claims that astronomers working at the La Silla Observatory in Chile have identified an Earth-like planet in orbit around Proxima Centauri, the red dwarf star located inside the Centaurus constellation, a mere (all things being relative) 4.25 light-years away.
“The still nameless planet is believed to be Earth-like and orbits at a distance to Proxima Centauri that could allow it to have liquid water on its surface – an important requirement for the emergence of life,” says an anonymous source with the European Southern Observatory (ESO), an intergovernmental research group based in Chile. “Never before have scientists discovered a second Earth that is so close by.”
Proxima Centauri is a member of the triple star system along with Alpha Centauri A and B, measuring only one seventh the size of the Sun and up to now containing no known exoplanets (planetary bodies outside of our Solar System).
A spokesperson with the ESO has stated that the group is aware of the report but that no comment will be made at this time, while the anonymous source insisted that ESO will be making an official announcement by the end of August. Still, scientists and star-gazers around the world are champing at the bit to learn more about the mysterious discovery, one which could alter upcoming plans for interstellar space exploration including the nano-spaceship project called Breakthrough Starshot, whose stated goal has been to send a wafer-sized, light-propelled spacecraft to Alpha Centauri.
“The discovery of possible planet around Proxima Centauri is very exciting,” said Professor Phillip Lubin, professor at UC Santa Barbara and member of the Project Starshot team, in conversation with Universe Today. “It makes the case of visiting nearby stellar systems even more compelling, though we know there are many exoplanets around other nearby stars and it is very likely that the Alpha Centauri system will also have planets.”
The search for life on other planets has been heating up over the last few years, particularly since the launch in 2009 of NASA’s Kepler space observatory, whose mission is to search the skies for Earth-like exoplanets. And with over 4,000 exoplanets now identified, the search is on to find out which ones are in the so-called “habitable zone” – that orbital range around a star within which a planet’s surface could maintain liquid water and thus be a life-bearing candidate.
The basis for locating exoplanets relies on the minute changes to a star’s brightness which occur when an orbiting planet passes in front of it. Scientists investigating Kepler’s findings have recently produced a list of 216 exoplanets that are located within their respective stars’ habitable zones, with a still smaller group of 20 that may also be rocky planets like Earth and Mars rather than gaseous like Jupiter and Saturn.
Last year, NASA announced it had identified what was then termed Earth’s “closest twin” -an exoplanet named Kepler 452b which appears to be both Earth-sized and orbiting a star similar to the Sun. But at 1,400 light-years away, Kepler 452b’s appeal may begin to fade in comparison to the new discovery, a scant 4.24 light-years from home.