Earth-like Planet Discovered around Proxima Centauri – The Next Big Step for Mankind?

Artist impression of a sunset on an Earth-like planet. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Atacama Desert, Chile — The German weekly Der Spiegel recently announced that astronomers have discovered an Earth-like planet, orbiting Proxima Centauri, at a distance of just 4.25 light years away from our planet.

Astronomers have been curious about Proxima Centauri for the past 100 years. It is a red dwarf, a star with low mass and a part of the trinary star system, which includes Alpha Centauri A and B. The Proxima Centauri is 0.12 light years (~7590 AUs) closer to Earth, making it the closest star system to the Earth. In other words, it is the Sun’s closest neighbor.

Earlier the Kepler Mission stated that there are many Earth-like exoplanets that were deemed to be habitable.  More recently, an international team of astronomers and researchers narrowed down the Kepler report to just 20 from the points of planets that were most equipped to support life. The only flip side is that these planets are hundreds to thousands of light years away from Earth. The news of coming across an Earth-like planet which is just a few light years away is definitely a good one.

Should we be overly optimistic?

The short answer is yes. Der Spiegel goes on to say that the nameless planet that orbits around Proxima Centauri, could have the potential for liquid water on the surface, a huge requirement to support life. The magazine also states that never before in the history of mankind have scientists come across a second Earth, so close by.

The discovery of the nameless planet was made by European Southern Observatory (ESO) through the La Silla Observatory’s reflecting telescope. By the way, this is the same observatory that announced the discovery of Alpha Centauri Bb in 2012, which they had termed as the closest exoplanet from Earth. Investigations and research later cast doubts on the available data.

However, Der Spiegel states that the nameless planet orbiting Proxima Centauri is the real deal, because the latest discovery involved thorough research and double-checks.  The source for the magazine, was a part of the research team who was quoted saying,

“Finding small celestial bodies is a lot of hard work. We were moving at the technically feasible limit of measurement.“

The German magazine states that the European Southern Observatory will be giving a formal report of its finding by the end of August 2016. However, the spokesman of the observatory refused to comment on the ongoing development.

Artist impression of a planet around Alpha Centauri B. Credit: European Southern Observatory / CC

Meanwhile, “Project Starshot” a part of the Breakthrough Initiatives, a program funded by Russian billionaire along with backing by Mark Zuckerberg and Stephen Hawking to search for intelligent life, is already on the verge of sending a laser-sail propelled nanocraft to Alpha Centauri. The craft can reach the destination at a speed of up to 20 percent of the speed of light, which mean it will cross 4.37 light years  or 20 years to reach Alpha Centauri. With the latest discovery of the planet orbiting Proxima Centauri being even closer to the Earth, they might need to rethink on their plan.

While we await an official confirmation, the fact that the industry experts are excited about the prospect of an exoplanet nearby definitely raises hopes. With the possibility of a mission that could be well achieved in our lifetime, we definitely stand a chance of interplanetary travel.

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