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Exoplanet Proxima B Is 'Earth Next Door': Why The Discovery Is Important

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The European Southern Observatory (ESO) announced Wednesday, Aug. 24, the discovery of an exoplanet considered as the "Earth next door." The planet is situated more than 4 light-years away and orbits a red dwarf star known as Proxima Centauri.

What makes this finding fascinating is that Proxima Centauri is our solar system's nearest neighbor. And although astronomers detect hundreds of exoplanets annually, the newly identified planet orbits Proxima in a distance enough to make scientists wonder if it could sustain life.

Next-Door Neighbor

Known as Proxima b, the potentially habitable planet is thought to be at least 1.3 times the mass of our own planet. Because Proxima b lies within the "goldilocks" zone of its star system, astronomers suppose that liquid water — a crucial life-sustaining substance — could likely exist in it.

Study co-author Guillem Anglada-Escudé says there is a "reasonable" notion that Proxima b might be able to sustain life.

But even if liquid water does exist in the planet, the strong radiation and 11-day orbit would produce a climate on Proxima b that is very different from that on Earth. If one stands on the surface of Proxima b, one would not see a blue sky. Rather, it would be an alien red.

Existence Of Alien Life?

ESO's discovery does not automatically mean that we could prove the existence of alien life. According to The New York Times, the findings underscore a connection between us and Earth, particularly in regards to the planet as a home.

“People always want to know where we came from, where we really came from,” an astronomer told The New York Times. “Other planets are a big part of answering that question.”

Can We Travel Or Send A Probe To Proxima B?

At 4.2 light-years away, Proxima b is the closest exoplanet out of thousands that orbit outside our solar system. However, the prospect of traveling to the planet is still remote, researchers say.

In fact, a probe launched to the exoplanet will take 70,000 years before it reaches its surface, especially with existing technology.

Meanwhile, Anglada-Escudé and colleagues still have a lot of mysteries to solve. For instance, one puzzling aspect of the planet is its location. Researchers say it is unlikely that Proxima b formed in its current location.

Anglada-Escudé says they suspect that the planet formed somewhere else or that raw materials condensed somewhere else and ended up there through a migration process.

“Just the discovery, the sense of exploration, of finding something so close, I think it is what makes [it] very exciting,” says Anglada-Escudé.

Details of the new study are published in the journal Nature.

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