The nearest Earth-like planet

What could be more exciting for exobiologists and planetary scientists than to discover that a nearby star is orbited by a planet approximately the same mass as the Earth that may support liquid water: a world in the ‘Goldilocks zone’? It seems that Proxima Centauri, the Sun’s closest companion star (4.2 light years distant), might have such a planet (Anglada-Escudé, G. And 30 others 2016. A terrestrial planet candidate in a temperate orbit around Proxima Centauri. Nature, v. 536, p. 437-440).  It is one of 34 candidates found to date with various levels of likelihood for having the potential to produce life and support it. To fit the bill a planet first has to orbit a star at a distance where the stellar energy output is unlikely to vapourise any surface water yet is sufficient to keep it at a temperature above freezing point, i.e. the ‘Goldilocks’ or circumstellar habitable zone is closer to a cool star than to a hot one. Note that the liquid-water criterion requires that the planet also has an atmosphere with sufficient pressure to maintain liquid water. It also needs to have a mass close to that of the Earth (between 0.1 to 5 Earth masses) and a similar density, i.e. a candidate needs to be dominated by silicates so that it has a solid surface rather than being made mainly of gases and liquids.

The location of Alpha Centauri A and B, Proxim...

The location of Alpha Centauri A and B, Proxima Centauri and the Sun in the Hertzsprung-Russell (HR) diagram. (credit: Wikipedia)

Proxima Centauri b, as the planet is called, was not discovered by the Kepler space telescope using the transit method (drops in a star’s brightness as a planet transits across its disk) but by terrestrial telescopes that measure the Doppler shifts in starlight as it wobbles because of the gravitational affect of an orbiting planet. As well as being close, Proxima Centauri is much smaller than the Sun so such effects are more pronounced, especially by planets orbiting close to it. The planet that has excited great interest has an orbital period of only 11.2 Earth days so is much closer to its star and may have a surface temperature (without any greenhouse effect) of 234 K (21 degrees less than that of Earth). The wobble suggests a mass and radius are likely to be 1.3  and between 0.8 to 1.4 times those of Earth, respectively. So Proxima Centauri b is probably a silicate-rich world. But, of course, such limited information gives no guarantee whatever of the presence of liquid water and an atmosphere that can support it. Neither is it possible to suggest a day length. In fact, such a close orbit may have resulted in the planet tidally locked in synchrony with its orbit, in the manner of the Moon showing only one face to the Earth. Moreover, its star is a red dwarf and is known to produce a prodigious X-ray flux, frequent flares and probably a stream of energetic particles, from which only a planet with a magnetic field is shielded. All red dwarfs seem to have such characteristics, and the list of possible Earth-like planets show them to be the most common hosts.

It is too early to get overexcited as technologies for astronomical detection of atmospheres and surface composition are about a decade off at the earliest. Being so close makes it tempting for some space agency to plan sending tiny probes (around 1 gram) using a laser propulsion system that is under development. Anything as substantial as existing planetary probes and certainly a crewed mission is unthinkable with current propulsion systems – a one-way trip of 80 thousand years and stupendous amounts of fuel.

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