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ASU astrophysicist: Discovery of Earth-like planet is huge

(Photo via @NASA on twitter)
LISTEN: ASU astrophysicist: Discovery of nearby earth-like planet is huge

Researchers confirmed Wednesday there is a planet nearby that could be habitable for humans.

The planet Proxima-b orbits Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our sun at just 4.2 light-years away.

“Really right next door in the cosmic sense, we have a highly-likely habitable planet,” said Evgenya Shkolnik, assistant professor of astrophysics at ASU’s School for Earth and Space Exploration. “And if it’s rocky and has an atmosphere then it has the potential to sustain liquid water on its surface, and therefore surface life.”

Even though we are not going to be sending humans there anytime soon, probably not for centuries, once interstellar human space flight becomes possible, this would be the first place she’d expect we would go.

In the meantime, research is critical.

Because it is the closest — and it will forever be the closest because it orbits our closest stellar neighbor — Shkolnik said it is not unimaginable that we can send cameras, probes or some sort of spacecraft to the planet and have a look for ourselves.

“There is a private funded endeavor called Breakthrough Starshot,” she said.

“That is already planning to send in about 20 years or so small nano craft that are these tiny little spacecraft that are the size of your fingernail and weigh less than a gram.”

The idea is to point them at the Proxima Centauri planetary system, then shoot lasers at the little craft to speed it up to about 20 percent of the speed of light.

“If you can travel at 20 percent of the speed of light, you would get to 4.3 light years in about 20 years,” she said.

The company believes they can accomplish this in about 20 years, then it will be about 20 years of travel time.

“So in about 40-50 years we could have sent cameras to this system,” said Shkolnik.

The existence of the planet has been overlooked for so long because the star is very active with flares, making it difficult to be sure the planet is there. The scientific team has been monitoring and collecting data on the planet for 16 years.

“And have looked simultaneously at what the star is doing, and what the planet is doing to the star from different observatories from all over the world,” she said. “And have managed to conclude that the star cannot possibly mimick this signal.”

That only leaves the option that it must be a planet.

The planet Proxima-b is even closer to its star Proxima Centauri than Mercury is to our Sun.

“So the year of this planet is only 11 days,” Shkolnik said.

The habitable zone, also known as the Goldilocks zone is much closer. That’s because the star is much cooler than our Sun.

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