Is there life possible outside this blue ball of Earth? This question has baffled scientists and common people for centuries. Many missions have been carried out in search of habitable planets outside the Earth. And we might have just found the answer in the form of what is being hailed as the biggest astronomical discovery of the century.
Astronomers of European Southern Observatory (ESO) have discovered an Earth-like exoplanet. And no, it is not in a galaxy, long long away. In fact, the planet is reportedly orbiting the nearest star to the Earth, Proxima Centauri.
They carried observations under a campaign called Pale Red Dot as Proxima Centauri often appears as a red dot. Explaining about the campaign, lead astronomer Guillem Anglada-Escudé said,
“The first hints of a possible planet were spotted back in 2013, but the detection was not convincing. Since then we have worked hard to get further observations off the ground with help from ESO and others. The recent Pale Red Dot campaign has been about two years in the planning.”
The planet, weighing roughly 1.3 times the Earth, is dubbed as Proxima b. It is located at a distance of 4.25 light years and revolving in an orbit 4.3 million miles away from Proxima Centauri.
Interestingly, the orbital distance is comparable to the distance of the Earth from the Sun. The distance is approximately 5% of our distance from the Sun.
However, what further increases the probability of Proxima b to be habitable is the nature of Proxima Centauri itself. The temperature of the star is lot less than the sun which would negate the effect of less distance of the planet from it.
These conditions make the possibility of water on the planet a very likely possibility. The team made use of Doppler Effect to study the planet and Proxima Centauri from the Earth.
However, since Proxima Centauri is an active star and can often give the appearance of a planet, astronomers took their own time to confirm the presence of the exoplanet using a wide telescope network as well to study the brightness at regular intervals.
As per Escude, the results have been quite definitive which led them to finally draft a paper on the discovery. However, questions about the atmosphere of the exoplanet remain unanswered.
This is because Proxima Centauri emits strong ultraviolet and X-ray radiations which are many times stronger than the sun. These radiations have the capability to wipe out the entire atmosphere from Proxima b if it is present anyway.
However, the presence of atmosphere will also depend on the history of the formation of the exoplanet. If it was formed near the Proxima Centauri then it is unlikely that it would have an atmosphere. But if it was formed away from the star and later drifted towards it, it could have a habitable atmosphere.
The astronomers and scientists now plan to begin the next stage of this discovery to find answers to these questions and more. They will extensively study the planet and the Proxima Centauri by using the next generation of giant telescopes. Talking about the same, Escude said,
“Many exoplanets have been found and many more will be found, but searching for the closest potential Earth-analogue and succeeding has been the experience of a lifetime for all of us. Many people’s stories and efforts have converged on this discovery. The result is also a tribute to all of them. The search for life on Proxima b comes next…”
Of course, it could indeed turn out to be the biggest discovery of this century if Proxima b shows favourable conditions for life and maybe even signs of an advanced life!