Thursday, August 25, 2016

Proxima B: Another Earth?

An artist's illustration of Proxima B showing her sun, Proxima Centauri
As the search for life outside planet Earth continues relentlessly, the Huffington Post reports the discovery of yet another exoplanet that might be able to support life!

An Earth-like planet is orbiting the sun closest to ours, scientists announced Wednesday.

The planet, called “Proxima b,” orbits a star called “Proxima Centauri” and has a temperature that would allow liquid water to exist there, according to a statement released Wednesday by the European Southern Observatory. That means the world is possibly habitable, but scientists don’t know yet whether there’s anything living there.

“This rocky world is a little more massive than the Earth and is the closest exoplanet to us ― and it may also be the closest possible abode for life outside the solar system,” ESO said. 

Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf star, lies just 4.25 light-years away from Earth. While that’s pretty far away by astronomical distances, it’s just a drop in the cosmic bucket. Other Earth-like exoplanets that have been discovered are much farther away from Earth, which makes the revelation of Proxima b more exciting.

Earlier this year, researchers in Chile looked at Proxima Centauri using the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher, or HARPS, a high-resolution instrument that specializes in the search for extrasolar planets. They were searching for a wobble in the star that would indicate the gravitational tug of a potential orbiting planet.

What they found amazed them.

“The first hints of a possible planet were spotted back in 2013, but the detection was not convincing,” Guillem Anglada-Escude of Queen Mary University in London, who led the Chile team, said in the ESO statement. This year, the team checked every day during the 60 nights of their scans of Proxima Centauri. “The first 10 were promising, the first 20 were consistent with expectations, and at 30 days, the result was pretty much definitive, so we started drafting the paper!” he said.

The researchers will publish their scientific paper detailing the astronomical finding on Aug. 25 in the journal Nature.

Proxima b is about 1.3 times bigger than Earth and orbits its parent sun approximately every 11 days. It’s a lot closer to its star than we are ― just 5 percent of our Earth-Sun distance, according to ESO.

Astronomers say that Proxima b is orbiting in a habitable zone, meaning the planet’s surface temperature could promote the presence of liquid water. But that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s any life there. Radiation from the red dwarf star could cause a much different climate on Proxima b than we have on Earth.

The discovery and confirmation of the planet now begins a more extensive exploration of our very close ― cosmically speaking ― neighbor. And that means the planet will become a major target in the search for life elsewhere.

“Many exoplanets have been found and many more will be found, but searching for the closest potential Earth-analogue and succeeding has been the experience of a lifetime for all of us,” said Anglada-Escude.

“Many people’s stories and efforts have converged on this discovery. The result is also a tribute to all of them. The search for life on Proxima b comes next.”

First of all, I am definitely as eager as the next cosmologist or astrophysicist, in the question of whether or not there are other planets that support life (other than our own). I am also thrilled, and breathless with excitement and wonder, when certain extraterrestrial phenomena are uncovered as a result of some serious and dedicated research. However, left unspoken in the perhaps shouty exuberance of these cosmological declarations, is the rather solemn or sobering fact that we are merely stating only the findings that come to us from mere observations with our telescopes - powerful though they may be. 

Yes, all we are basing these doubtlessly triumphant or enrapturing declarations of discovery (and do not get me wrong - our instruments are incredibly precise and powerful), is not on any kind of experimental evidence. No one has flown to or commissioned a deep-space probe to be sent to the exact locations of most of these deep-space exoplanets. No kind of practical data or evidence or even real life pictures exists as to what these exoplanets are definitively like. I do not therefore imply that they do not exist - I suspect that the absence of the kind of data that might convince skeptics is because the distances involved, for a probe or a manned mission to gather incontrovertible evidence, are of such sheer immensity as to boggle the mind. They are basing these discoveries solely on observational evidence from powerful scopes and on spectroscopy, which is to all intents and purposes more theoretical than it is practical. 

Having said the above, I hasten to add that there is nothing wrong with these sorts of scientific postulations being grounded on only observational grounds - as a matter of fact, in some cases, that's all we'll ever have. A lot of what we currently know in cosmological or astrophysical circles to be experimentally verifiable fact started out in a similar manner. However, I must point out that most of the excitable listening public, far from realizing that there is no hands-on or experimental data or evidence for the existence of some of these exoplanets found in the "Goldilock's Zone" of their respective stars - impressively further away from us than even "Proxima b" here - actually treat or receive such news as if it were possible that now, or at some time in the immediate future, earthlings would happily set about the task of colonizing another "earth". 

This is the subtext for a slew of sci-fi space movies out there. Nevertheless, I couldn't begin to tell you just how remote the possibility of such a venture truly is. Not only do we not have the equipment for manned deep-space travel, our probes are still trying to uncover much about our very own solar system, not to talk of launching off into deep space! In one of my previous posts, I tried to paint a picture of how vast our galaxy is - just one of billions out there. In another post, I talked about how vast the universe as a whole is, and about the theoretical possibility that there could be life somewhere else in the Universe simply unknown to or perhaps unknowable to us. 

At any rate, let's narrow things down a bit. Let's assume that we are indeed ready for a manned flight to the Proxima Centauri solar system to fly by or to land on Proxima B. We intend to take stunning pictures of the planet as we approach; to investigate whether it had breathable oxygen in its air which would be favorable to us of course; to scoop up soil samples when we land on the rocky planet for later study; to scour the planet in search of water and of possible forms of life. You get the idea already, don't you? Well, Proxima B is about 4.25 light years away from us. Do you know what that is in miles? Almost 25 TRILLION miles! If one blazes forth to Proxima B in a rocket ship, at the speed it took for us to reach Jupiter in 3 years or less, then it would require roughly 147544 years for one's rocket to get there, and yeah, 147544 years for one to get back and share one's findings with us. Not only is this trip infeasible because of the length of a human life span, or that there may not be any current technology to blast one over such distances, you have to consider the fact that whatever information one could bring back to Earth close to three hundred thousand years later, might no longer be totally accurate or even useful.

There, you have it. We will all doubtlessly rejoice over this recent information, and then we must all go back to the drawing board to continue the quest for life in other worlds.

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  1. I love reading stuffs like this. 147544 years!!! Wow, that's an impossible mission. I do think that there are other beings (should I call them humans) elsewhere in other galaxies but seems we may never find out