We have long waited for an opportunity to send robots on missions to explore Earth-like planets with Starshot projects. So, people were really excited when the European Southern Observatory announced a ‘nearby’ exoplanet back in August of 2016.
In order to get the facts about this planet called Proxima Centauri B straight, here’s a short summary of what we think to know about it.
Proxima Centauri b is located 4.22 light-years (or 25 trillion miles) from Earth, embedded in the constellation of Centaurus and orbiting its sun within the habitable zone. Measured in light-years, that’s the closest any known exoplanet comes to our own Solar System. Even though that doesn’t necessarily mean it is the fastest one to reach, using a combination of the speed of light and gravitational assistance, the planet nonetheless is an interesting one to observe.
Its estimated mass comes in at 1.3 times that of Earth and heavy stellar wind pressures of 2,000 times the ones we have over here could make it an uncomfortable experience for any life that may or may not exist on the planet.
However, according to the latest climate models for the planet, the surface might even be liquid water instead of rocks and dust only. The simulations presented in a new paper by a team of meteorologists and astronomers give rise to speculation as the planet is now believed to provide stable and life-friendly conditions over a much broader range of its orbital parameters than previously thought.
The scientists and researchers from the University of Exeter, England, used their standard model called Met Office Unified Model that has already been tried and tested for years.
On the downside, and we are talking about the interesting bits and pieces that the model originally designed for monitoring Earth’s climate change simply cannot test for, is an atmosphere or a range of estimated temperatures. Unfortunately, the presence or absence of a magnetic field can’t be tested, as well. In case there’s no such thing, we can be pretty sure that any assumed atmosphere was wiped out a long time ago, leaving behind a hot and burned planet.
However, the team concentrated on what can be explored and the crucial results show that Proxima B indeed has potential and can be used as a first test-case further enhancing the Met Office software for the Unified Model.
The research has already been published in the leading scientific journal, Astronomy & Astrophysics today with Dr. Ian Boutle, lead author of the paper explaining:
"Our research team looked at a number of different scenarios for the planet's likely orbital configuration using a set of simulations. As well as examining how the climate would behave if the planet was 'tidally-locked' (where one day is the same length as one year), we also looked at how an orbit similar to Mercury, which rotates three times on its axis for every two orbits around the sun (a 3:2 resonance), would affect the environment."
Also weighing in is Dr. James Manners, another author on the paper, adding that:
"One of the main features that distinguishes this planet from Earth is that the light from its star is mostly in the near infra-red. These frequencies of light interact much more strongly with water vapor and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which affects the climate that emerges in our model."
To complement the statements and showing just how big the group of astrophysics working in the fields of star formation and exoplanet research at The University of Exeter truly is, here’s Dr. Nathan Mayne, scientific lead on exoplanet modeling, concluding:
"With the project we have at Exeter we are trying to not only understand the somewhat bewildering diversity of exoplanets being discovered, but also exploit this to hopefully improve our understanding of how our own climate has and will evolve."
Having said that, the question remains of whether Proxima B is a planet suitable for life and exploration. On the other hand, it's never a bad thing keeping humanities dream and credo of space exploration alive: whenever the answer is hidden in outer space, we have to go there and find out ourselves!
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