Artist rendering of the Directed Energy Interstellar Study. Credits: P. Lubin

Artist rendering of the Directed Energy Interstellar Study.
Credits: P. Lubin

For you interstellar travelers out there – it’s a doable target!

Proxima b is the closest possible home for life outside the solar system – a mere jump away at four-light-years.

An international team of scientists led by astronomers at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) announced today clear evidence of a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our solar system.

Credit: ESO

Credit: ESO

Rocky world

Using facilities operated by ESO (the European Southern Observatory) and other telescopes, the research indicates that Proxima b orbits its parent star every 11 days. It appears that the rocky world – slightly more massive than the Earth — sports a temperature suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface.

In a QMUL press statement, the lead author and coordinator of the project, Guillem Anglada-Escudé from QMUL’s School of Physics and Astronomy, said:

“Succeeding in the search for the nearest terrestrial planet beyond the solar system has been an experience of a lifetime, and has drawn on the dedication and passion of a number of international researchers. We hope these findings inspire future generations to keep looking beyond the stars. The search for life on Proxima b comes next.”

Artist's impression of the planet orbiting Proxima Centauri. Credit: ESO

Artist’s impression of the planet orbiting Proxima Centauri.
Credit: ESO

Cautionary caveats

While the temperate orbit of Proxima b is a plus, the conditions on the surface may be strongly affected by the ultraviolet and X-ray flares from the star Proxima Centauri — a red dwarf star — these would be far more intense than those the Earth experiences from the Sun.

Furthermore, the actual suitability of this kind of planet to support water and Earth-like life is a matter of intense but mostly theoretical debate.

The QMUL press statement notes: “Major concerns that count against the presence of life are related to the closeness of the star. For example gravitational forces probably maintain the same side of the planet in perpetual daylight, while the other side is in perpetual night. The planet’s atmosphere might also slowly be evaporating or have more complex chemistry than Earth’s due to stronger ultraviolet and X-ray radiation, especially during the first billion years of the star’s life.”

Further observations

However, none of the arguments has been proven conclusively, the QMUL statement continues, “and they are unlikely to be settled without direct observational evidence and characterization of the planet’s atmosphere.

This discovery will kick-start a campaign of further observations, both with current instruments and with next generation of giant telescopes, such as ESO’s European Extremely Large Telescope, as well as space-based telescopes.

“Proxima b will be a prime target for the hunt for evidence of life elsewhere in the universe,” noted the QMUL press statement.

Pete Worden of Breakthrough Initiatives. Credit: ESO/M. Zamani

Pete Worden of Breakthrough Initiatives.
Credit: ESO/M. Zamani

Robotic exploration

In their research paper published in Nature – “A terrestrial planet candidate in a temperate orbit around Proxima Centauri” – the authors conclude:

“In this sense, a warm terrestrial planet around Proxima offers unique follow-up opportunities to attempt further characterization via transits -on going searches-, via direct imaging and high-resolution spectroscopy in the next decades, and –maybe– robotic exploration in the coming centuries.”

Can we reach the stars? If we can, the natural first step is our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri – four light years away.

Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives

Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives

Breakthrough Starshot

Enter Breakthrough Starshot – a $100 million research and engineering program aiming to demonstrate proof of concept for a new technology, enabling ultra-light unmanned space flight at 20% of the speed of light; and to lay the foundations for a flyby mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation.

Breakthrough Initiatives plans to develop a proof-of-concept fleet of light sail spacecraft, namedStarChip, capable of making the journey to the Alpha Centauri star system, 4.37 light-years away.

The Breakthrough Initiatives were founded in 2015 by Yuri and Julia Milner to explore the Universe, seek scientific evidence of life beyond Earth, and encourage public debate from a planetary perspective.

For more information, go to:

http://breakthroughinitiatives.org/

Credit: PHL

Credit: PHL

Catalog add

Proxima b was added to the Habitable Exoplanets Catalog (HEC) “as one of the best objects of interest for the search for life in the universe.”

The Planetary Habitability Laboratory (PHL) is a research and education virtual laboratory dedicated to studies of the habitability of Earth, the Solar System, and exoplanets. The PHL is managed by the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo.

Go to: http://phl.upr.edu/

Resources:

The new research paper published in Nature can be read here:

http://www.eso.org/public/archives/releases/sciencepapers/eso1629/eso1629a.pdf

NOTE:

  • To get up to speed on the Directed Energy Interstellar Study by Philip Lubin at the University of California, Santa Barbara, go to:

http://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/roadmap_to_interstellar_flight_tagged.pdf

  • A video discussing Lubin’s work and his NASA Innovative Advanced Concept (NIAC) research concerning energy propulsion for interstellar exploration is available here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WCDuAiA6kX0

  • Lastly, Lubin is scheduled to discuss today his current work at the 2016 NIAC Symposium now underway in Raleigh, North Carolina. To tap into the NIAC live stream presentations, go to:

http://livestream.com/viewnow/NIAC2016

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