The ability to detect planets around distant stars has grown remarkably in just the last few years due to a combination of improved instruments and better techniques. Where not so long ago it was possible only to discover large, Jupiter-like worlds, now, year by year scientists are discovering more planets with sizes similar to that of Earth. Some of these planets are even found in the zones around their stars most likely to produce conditions that could support life.
But one of the most intriguing discoveries may be one that scientists aren’t quite ready to reveal.
… in what may prove to be the most exciting find to date, the German weekly Der Spiegel announced recently that astronomers have discovered an Earth-like planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, just 4.25 light-years away. Yes, in what is an apparent trifecta, this newly-discovered exoplanet is Earth-like, orbits within it’s sun’s habitable zone, and is within our reach. But is this too good to be true?
The answer … maybe. Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf star, a very common, long-lived form of star. It’s only about one-eighth the size of the sun, but it will stick around much, much longer. And Proxima isn’t just close, it’s the closest—the nearest star after our own sun. Previous searches have indicated there are no large, Jupiter-scale planets around Proxima, but they didn’t rule out smaller objects. For a planet near the size of Earth to be found in the habitable zone of the very nearest star would seem to indicate that far from being unique, planets such as Earth are extraordinarily common. Plug that into your Drake equation, then explain the Fermi Paradox.
The article goes on to state that the European Southern Observatory (ESO) will be announcing the finding at the end of August. But according to numerous sources, in response to a request for comment by AFP, ESO spokesman Richard Hook refused to confirm or deny the discovery of an exoplanet around Proxima Centauri. “We are not making any comment,” he is reported as saying.
At the moment, people are taking “not making any comment” for “yes, we found something.” But it could just as easily mean “we’re very unsure of the data,” or even “this seems unlikely.”
Stay tuned. Because even if the planet that’s been found is more Mars-like or Venus-like than Earthy, it’s still a hugely exciting prospect.
Oh, and “nearby” is a relative term. At 4.25 light years distance, Proxima Centauri is very close in interstellar terms, but it’s still better than 25 trillion miles away. That … is a long walk.