New planet is found four light years from Earth...and it may be hab­it­able

Daily Mirror - - POLLYHUDSON - BY ABI­GAIL O’LEARY abi­gail.oleary@trin­i­tymir­

THERE could be a planet ca­pa­ble of sup­port­ing life just down the road, in uni­verse terms.

And, un­can­nily, it is in the same Al­pha Cen­tauri star sys­tem as the fic­tional Pandora from James Cameron’s block­buster sci­encefic­tion film Avatar.

Prox­ima b is 1.3 times the size of Earth and or­bits our clos­est star Prox­ima Cen­tauri, four light years away. The rocky planet was spot­ted in 2009 but as­tronomers have now con­firmed it is in the star’s “Goldilocks zone”, nei­ther too close nor too far away for wa­ter to de­velop.

Spec­u­la­tion is al­ready rife that as well as be­ing hab­it­able, Prox­ima b may al­ready be home to life – but un­for­tu­nately for film fans, noth­ing like the spear-wield­ing blue Na’vi peo­ple of Pandora.

Dr Mikko Tuomi, from the Univer­sity of Hert­ford­shire, said: “It is the clos­est pos­si­ble ex­o­planet to us and may be the clos­est to sup­port life out­side the so­lar sys­tem. Ac­cord­ing to the find­ings, the planet has a rocky sur­face and is only a frac­tion more mas­sive than the Earth.”

As­tronomers first sus­pected Prox­ima b’s ex­is­tence in 2000 af­ter spot­ting a small wob­ble in Prox­ima Cen­tauri’s po­si­tion. They dis­cov­ered it af­ter study­ing the star from the Euro­pean South­ern Ob­ser­va­tory in Chile’s Ata­cama desert.

Prox­ima b is the only known planet out­side our own so­lar sys­tem that sci­en­tists think hu­man be­ings could po­ten­tially oc­cupy.

But while the dis­cov­ery con­jures images of Cameron’s 2009 move hit, any life al­ready there would have had to de­velop a strong re­sis­tance to ul­travi­o­let ra­di­a­tion due to its close­ness to Prox­ima Cen­tauri.

It or­bits at 7.5mil­lion kilo­me­tres – just 5% of the dis­tance be­tween Earth and the Sun. But as Prox­ima Cen­tauri is a red dwarf, a low-mass star ra­di­at­ing less heat than ours, it falls within its hab­it­able zone.

Dr Guillem Anglada-Es­cude of Queen Mary Univer­sity Lon­don, who led the 30-strong as­tron­omy team, said: “Suc­ceed­ing in the search for the near­est ter­res­trial planet be­yond the so­lar sys­tem has been an ex­pe­ri­ence of a life­time.

“We hope these find­ings in­spire fu­ture gen­er­a­tions to keep look­ing be­yond the stars. The search for life on Prox­ima b comes next.”

DIS­COV­ERY Chile tele­scope

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