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