Proxima b: Newly discovered planet 'likely' to support life, say scientists

'Life at the gates of our solar system.' Researchers say planet is 'one of the best candidates' for finding living creatures in space

Benjamin Kentish
Friday 07 October 2016 20:42 BST
Proxima b could be the first planet outside our solar system to be visited by robots from earth
Proxima b could be the first planet outside our solar system to be visited by robots from earth (AFP/Getty)

The discovery of alien life could be a step closer after scientists found a newly discovered planet is “likely” to harbour life forms.

A team at the Marseille Astrophysics Laboratory (CNRS) believes planet Proxima b, which was first spotted in August, has seas and could even be an “ocean planet” with water covering its whole surface.

The presence of water raises the tantalising prospect that Proxima b could be home to alien life.

The Earth-like planet orbits Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our sun. It is estimated to be 1.3 times the mass of Earth and is 4.22 light years away.

Proxima b lies inside the “habitable zone” of the star it orbits, meaning it could have a surface temperature in the range needed to support life.

Scientists have previously suggested it could be the first exoplanet - a planet outside our solar system - to one day be visited by robots from Earth.

In the new study, published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, the researchers described how they had calculated its dimensions and the possible nature of its surface.

They suggested the planet could be covered by “a single liquid ocean 200 kilometres deep”.

Proxima b is much closer to the star it orbits than Earth is to our sun but because Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf - a much cooler type of star - it could still be temperate enough to sustain life.

The CNRS team said: “This planet, called Proxima b, is in an orbit that would allow it to have liquid water on its surface, thus raising the question of its habitability.

“It is likely to harbour liquid water at its surface and therefore to harbour life forms."

Bastien Brugger, who led the research, told The Independent: "Among the thousands of exoplanets we have already discovered, Proxima b is one of the best candidates to sustain life.

"It is in the habitable zone of its star, [and] even if it is really close to the star the fact that Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf allows the planet to have a lower temperature and maybe liquid water.

"The fact there could still be life on the planet today, not only during its formation, is huge.

"The interesting thing about Proxima b is it is the closest exoplanet to Earth. It is really exciting to have the possibility that there is life just at the gates of our solar system."

Researchers discovered Proxima b by studying the movement of the star it orbits. The gravitational pull of the planet makes the star move slightly, which researchers can detect by measuring the light emitted by the star.

More research is needed to determine the nature of Proxima b and whether it could be home to extraterrestrials.

Scientists say that while the presence of water is a possibility, they cannot confirm it at this stage.

And the prospect of a space mission to the planet remains a distant prospect. Current spacecrafts would take around 70,000 years to reach Proxima b.

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