Interstellar space travel has long been a dream of science fiction writers and scientists alike. That dream may soon come true with the discovery of a new exoplanet called Proxima B.
The new planet orbits Proxima Centauri, a star located in the constellation Centaurus. The star, whose name means “nearest star of Centaurus,” is the closest star to the Earth. Close does not really describe the distance accurately as the star is located 1.3 parsecs away.
This is equal to about 4.2 lightyears. Although this is still a huge distance away from our little blue planet, visiting the planet using unmanned drones is not an impossibility within our own lifetime. There are already plans to visit the planet using tiny laser-propelled probes.
Still in development, these probes will be able to travel 20 percent the speed of light. At that speed it would still take 20 years for the probes to reach the planet. It will be several decades until we have the first accurate piece of information concerning the environment of the new planet. Until then, we can infer a few pieces of information based on the position of the planet.
The planet orbits in what is called the Goldilocks Zone, or habitable zone.
From this, we know that it is possible that the planet contains an environment similar to our own. The main feature of the planet that would support life is the presence of liquid water at the planet’s surface. Of course, there are several other factors that must be taken into account for the planet to be habitable.
One includes exploring the possibility that the planet may not contain an atmosphere like our own that protects the planet from harmful rays released by the star.
Proxima B is much more susceptible to the harmful radiation released due to the fact that it is much closer to Proxima Centauri than we are to our own sun.
Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf star, so it is only about 1/7 the size of our own sun. This allows the planet to orbit much closer to the star than we could orbit around our own sun.
Besides its distance to the star, Proxima B may not have the atmosphere or magnetic field like we do that helps to protect our planet from harmful radiation emitted by the sun. If the planet does, it might provide an environment much like ours.
Astronomers have postulated the existence of the planet since 2000, but until this year much of the evidence concerning its existence has been contradictory. Scientists were able to support the existence of the planet by observing the effect of the planet’s gravity on Proxima Centauri.
The new exoplanet has been welcomed with great anticipation. It is likely that an unmanned spacecraft can travel to the planet and send photos back to Earth within our own lifetime. The thought that we may have images of a possibly habitable planet in our own lifetime is certainly something to think about.