The infinite nature of the Universe indicates that there are or should be other habitable planets. Our natural curiosity, as human beings, dictates that we will continue searching until we find them. After that we will make it a priority to explore these planets, and the life that we find there, in the most thorough way possible. A team of international scientists, based at the Queen Mary University in London and led by astronomer Guillem Anglada-Escude, have recently discovered a planet in the habitable zone of our neighboring star system. Temporarily called Proxima B, the team believes that this is the closest we have come to verifying the existence of life outside of our Solar System.
The closest star system to ours is the Alpha Centauri which consists of three stars; Alpha Centauri A, Alpha Centauri B and Proxima Centauri, which is a red dwarf meaning that it is smaller and cooler than our sun. The planet has been discovered orbiting this star and, because of its distance, is believed to be warm enough for water to remain in liquid form on some parts of its surface. This is one of the main criteria that determines whether a planet will be able to sustain life.
Proxima Centauri is a more active star than our sun, which would result in the planet being exposed to 100 times more radiation. Without any protective magnetic field, this level would be detrimental to any living organism. If the planet does have an atmosphere, however, life would still be able to survive especially in its water bodies.
Proxima B is 30% larger than earth and 95% closer to its sun, being only 4 million miles away as opposed to our planet’s 93 million. It orbits the star every 11.2 days, and is located approximately 4.2 light years away from us. This distance means that, even with current technology, it will be possible to send a probe there in as short as a few years. The biggest mystery about Proxima B, even though it is centred in a habitable zone, is whether or not there is actually life on the planet.
If the planet was formed by being blown away by stellar radiation, it means that without an atmosphere it would be unable to sustain life. Another obstacle to the presence of any living species is the fact that Proxima B may be tidally locked, meaning that the same side of the planet always faces the sun. An atmosphere as thick as earth’s would allow it to rotate in a way that would provide the entire surface with the necessary warmth, in order to create habitats in which plants and animals would be able to survive. Since there is so much potential for life on this new planet, some scientists have ventured as far as to say that we can assume that life exists there until it is proven that there isn’t.