Scientists studying data from the Alpha Centauri star system on Wednesday announced what they believe is a second Earth-like planet orbiting the star closest to the sun.
The finding, announced via a study in the journal Science Advances, is built from the analysis of 17 years of data focused on light signals that appear to be coming from the direction of this newly identified planet. And it’s a planet that offers scientists a rich bounty of opportunity to study another star system — and which might be hospitable to life of some kind.
About that last part, though, put an asterisk beside it for now. Nobody will be thinking about moving to this new planet (called Proxima c) anytime soon, thanks to the fact that the orbital pattern around its star means the planet might be frozen. Also, flares from the Proxima Centauri red dwarf that this planet orbits might have already wrecked the planet’s atmosphere.
Proxima c is at least 6 times bigger than Earth itself and as such is described as a super-Earth. The other reason that it might not be able to host human life has to do with the fact that it takes a little longer than five years (in Earth time) to complete a lap around its star. However, this new planet does orbit in the so-called “habitable zone” of Proxima Centauri — meaning, it’s not too far away from its star to allow for the presence of water on its surface.
According to an analysis from Scientific American, the discovery of this planet might help provide a better understanding of how planetary systems form and evolve around stars — both stars like our sun, as well as a red dwarf like Proxima Centauri. Fabio Del Sordo, an astronomer at the University of Crete in Greece who led the study, told SA, about what drives investigations like these that it’s “the discovery of remote, unknown but maybe accessible worlds. And perhaps the unconscious feeling this system can be reached by humans sometime in the distant future. Proxima is our closest neighbor in an immense universe. How could we not be charmed by it?”