Earth-Like Planet Around Proxima Centauri Discovered

The hunt for exoplanets has been heating up in recent years. Since it began its mission in 2009, over four thousand exoplanet candidates have been discovered by the Kepler mission, several hundred of which have been confirmed to be “Earth-like” (i.e. terrestrial). And of these, some 216 planets have been shown to be both terrestrial and located within their parent star’s habitable zone (aka. “Goldilocks zone”).

But in what may prove to be the most exciting find to date, the German weekly Der Spiegel announced recently that astronomers have discovered an Earth-like planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, just 4.25 light-years away. Yes, in what is an apparent trifecta, this newly-discovered exoplanet is Earth-like, orbits within its sun’s habitable zone, and is within our reach. But is this too good to be true?

For over a century, astronomers have known about Proxima Centauri and believed that it is likely to be part of a trinary star system (along with Alpha Centauri A and B). Located just 0.237 ± 0.011 light years from the binary pair, this low-mass red dwarf star is also 0.12 light years (~7590 AUs) closer to Earth, making it the closest star system to our own.

In the past, the Kepler mission has revealed several Earth-like exoplanets that were deemed to be likely habitable. And recently, an international team of researchers narrowed the number of potentially-habitable exoplanets in the Kepler catalog down to the 20 that are most likely to support life. However, in just about all cases, these planets are hundreds (if not thousands) of light years away from Earth.

Knowing that there is a habitable planet that a mission from Earth could reach within our own lifetimes is nothing short of amazing! But of course, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic. Citing anonymous sources, the magazine stated:

“The still nameless planet is believed to be Earth-like and orbits at a distance to Proxima Centauri that could allow it to have liquid water on its surface — an important requirement for the emergence of life. Never before have scientists discovered a second Earth that is so close by.”

In addition, they claim that the discovery was made by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) using the La Silla Observatory‘s reflecting telescope. Coincidentally, it was this same observatory that announced the discovery of Alpha Centauri Bb back in 2012, which was also declared to be “the closest exoplanet to Earth”. Unfortunately, subsequent analysis cast doubt on its existence, claiming it was a spurious artifact of the data analysis.

Artist's impression of the Earth-like exoplanet discovered orbiting Alpha Centauri B iby the European Southern Observatory on October 17, 2012. Credit: ESO
Artist’s impression of the Earth-like exoplanet discovered orbiting Alpha Centauri B by the European Southern Observatory on October 17, 2012. Credit: ESO

However, according to Der Spiegel’s unnamed source – whom they claim was involved with the La Silla team that made the find – this latest discovery is the real deal, and was the result of intensive work. “Finding small celestial bodies is a lot of hard work,” the source was quoted as saying. “We were moving at the technically feasible limit of measurement.”

The article goes on to state that the European Southern Observatory (ESO) will be announcing the finding at the end of August. But according to numerous sources, in response to a request for comment by AFP, ESO spokesman Richard Hook refused to confirm or deny the discovery of an exoplanet around Proxima Centauri. “We are not making any comment,” he is reported as saying.

What’s more, the folks at Project Starshot are certainly excited by the news. As part of Breakthrough Initiatives – a program founded by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner to search for intelligent life (with backing from Stephen Hawking and Mark Zuckerberg) – Starshot intends to send a laser-sail driven-nanocraft to Alpha Centauri in the coming years.

This craft, they claim, will be able to reach speeds of up to 20% the speed of light. At this speed, it will able to traverse the 4.37 light years that lie between Earth and Alpha Centauri in just 20 years. But with the possible discovery of an Earth-like planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, which lies even closer, they may want to rethink that objective.

Project Starshot, an initiative sponsored by the Breakthrough Foundation, is intended to be humanity's first interstellar voyage. Credit: breakthroughinitiatives.org
Project Starshot, an initiative sponsored by the Breakthrough Foundation, is intended to be humanity’s first interstellar voyage. Credit: breakthroughinitiatives.org

As Professor Phillip Lubin – a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the brains behind Project Starshot, and a key advisor to NASA’s DEEP-IN program – told Universe Today via email:

“The discovery of possible planet around Proxima Centauri is very exciting. It makes the case of visiting nearby stellar systems even more compelling, though we know there are many exoplanets around other nearby stars and it is very likely that the Alpha Centauri system will also have planets.”

Naturally, there is the desire (especially amongst exoplanet enthusiasts) to interpret the ESO’s refusal to comment either way as a sort of tacit confirmation. And knowing that industry professionals are excited it about it does lend an air of legitimacy. But of course, assuming anything at this point would be premature.

If the statements made by the unnamed source, and quoted by Der Speigel, are to be taken at face value, then confirmation (or denial) will be coming shortly. In the meantime, we’ll all just need to be patient. Still, you have to admit, it’s an exciting prospect: an Earth-like planet that’s actually within reach! And with a mission that could make it there within our own lifetimes. This is the stuff good science fiction is made of, you know.

Further Reading: Der Speigel

Celestial Laser Show? Nope, These Are Trails Showing Off Star Colors

There are so many colorful streaks in that image above that you’d be forgiven for thinking somebody is shooting lasers around the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile. Actually, though, this demonstrates a common technique for astronomy photo-taking where you do a time lapse to watch the stars moving as the Earth makes its daily rotation.

The image of auxiliary telescopes of Very Large Telescope Interferometer is not only pretty, but does have some scientific interest as well, ESO said.

“This technique … enhances the natural colours of the stars, which gives an indication of their temperature, ranging from about 1000 degrees Celsius [1,832 Fahrenheit] for the reddest stars to a few tens of thousands of degrees Celsius [or Fahrenheit] for the hottest, which appear blue. The sky in this remote and high location in Chile is extremely clear and there is no light pollution, offering us this amazing light show,” stated the European Southern Observatory.

According to ESO, these supplementary telescopes working together allow astronomers to “see details up to 25 times finer than with the individual telescopes.” You can read more about the VLTI at this ESO link, which includes some interesting facts — such as why the interferometers are named Antu, Kueyen, Melipal and Yepun.

Source: European Southern Observatory

This Exoplanet Is Turning Planetary Formation Scenarios Upside Down

What the heck is that giant exoplanet doing so far away from its star? Astronomers are still trying to figure out the curious case of HD 106906 b, a newly found gas giant that orbits at an astounding 650 astronomical units or Earth-sun distances from its host star. For comparison, that’s more than 20 times farther from its star than Neptune is from the sun.

“This system is especially fascinating because no model of either planet or star formation fully explains what we see,” stated Vanessa Bailey, a graduate astronomy student at the University of Arizona who led the research.

HD 106906 b is 11 times the size of Jupiter, throwing conventional planetary formation theory for a loop. Astronomers believe that planets gradually form from clumps of gas and dust that circle around young stars, but that process would take too long for this exoplanet to form — the system is just 13 million years old. (Our own planetary system is about 4.5 billion years old, by comparison.)

The discovery image of HD 106906 b, shown in thermal infrared light from instruments on the Magellan telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile. The image has been changed to take out light from its very bright host star. The planet orbits more than 20 times farther from its host star than Neptune does from the sun. (AU = astronomical units, or Earth-sun distances). Credit: Vanessa Bailey
The discovery image of HD 106906 b, shown in thermal infrared light from instruments on the Magellan telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile. The image has been changed to take out light from its very bright host star. The planet orbits more than 20 times farther from its host star than Neptune does from the sun. (AU = astronomical units, or Earth-sun distances). Credit: Vanessa Bailey

Another theory is that if the disc collapses quickly, perhaps it could spawn a huge planet — but it’s improbable that there is enough mass in the system for that to happen. Perhaps, the team says, this system is like a “mini binary star system”, with HD 106906 b being more or less a failed star of some sort. Yet there is at least one problem with that theory as well; the mass ratio of the planet and star is something like 1 to 100, and usually these scenarios occur in ratios of 1 to 10 or less.

“A binary star system can be formed when two adjacent clumps of gas collapse more or less independently to form stars, and these stars are close enough to each other to exert a mutual gravitation attraction and bind them together in an orbit,” Bailey stated.

“It is possible that in the case of the HD 106906 system the star and planet collapsed independently from clumps of gas, but for some reason the planet’s progenitor clump was starved for material and never grew large enough to ignite and become a star.”

Young binarys stars: Image credit: NASA
Young binary stars: Image credit: NASA

Besides puzzling out how HD 106906 b came to be, astronomers are also interested in the system because they can clearly see leftovers or a debris disk from the system’s formation. By studying this system further, astronomers hope to figure out more about how young planets evolve.

At 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit (1,500 degrees Celsius), the planet is most easily visible in infrared. The heat is from when the planet was first coalescing, astronomers said.

The astronomers spotted the planet using the Magellan telescope at the European Southern Observatory’s Atacama Desert in Chile. It was visible in both the Magellan Adaptive Optics (MagAO) system and Clio2 thermal infrared camera on the telescope. The planet was confirmed using Hubble Space Telescope images from eight years ago, as well as the FIRE spectrograph on Magellan that revealed more about the planet’s “nature and composition”, a press release stated.

The research paper is now available on the prepublishing site Arxiv and will be published in a future issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Source: University of Arizona

Future Supernova Is Surrounded By Hydrogen Clouds

The faint green glow you see in that picture is not an early harbringer of Hallowe’en spooks. It’s hydrogen gas clouds found recently nearby W26, a future supernova in the star cluster Westerlund 1.

The European Southern Observatory’s VLT Survey Telescope in Chile spotted the hydrogen in the cluster, which has hundreds of huge stars that are only believed to be a few million years old. (Our solar system, by comparison, is about 4.5 billion years old.)

“Such glowing clouds around massive stars are very rare, and are even rarer around a red supergiant— this is the first ionised nebula discovered around such a star,” the European Southern Observatory stated.

“W26 itself would be too cool to make the gas glow; the astronomers speculate that the source of the ionizing radiation may be either hot blue stars elsewhere in the cluster, or possibly a fainter, but much hotter, companion star to W26.”

Funny enough, the nebula that surrounds the red supergiant is similar to the one surrounding SN1987A, a star that exploded as a fairly bright supernova in 1987. “Studying objects like this new nebula around W26 will help astronomers to understand the mass loss processes around these massive stars, which eventually lead to their explosive demise,” ESO added.

Source: European Southern Observatory

Double Vision: Scientists Spot An Elder ‘Twin’ To the Sun

If you want a picture of how you’ll look in 30 years, youngsters are told, look at your parents. The same principle is true of astronomy, where scientists compare similar stars in different age groups to see how they progress.

We have a special interest in learning how the Sun will look in a few billion years because, you know, it’s the main source of energy and life on Earth. Newly discovered HIP 102152 could give us some clues. The star is four billion years older than the sun, but so close in composition that researchers consider it almost like a twin.

Telescopes have only been around for a few centuries, making it hard to project what happens during the billions upon billions of years for a star’s lifetime. We have about 400 years of observations on the sun, for example, which is a minute fraction of its 4.6 billion-year-old lifespan so far.

The Sun in H-Alpha, on 01-07-2013, using a Lunt Solar LS60Scope/LS50 Hydrogen Alpha Solar filter. Credit: John Chumack
Today, we take telescopic observations of the Sun for granted, but the technology only became available about 400 years ago. This picture shows the Sun in H-Alpha, on 01-07-2013, using a Lunt Solar LS60Scope/LS50 Hydrogen Alpha Solar filter. Credit: John Chumack

“It is very hard to study the history and future evolution of our star, but we can do this by hunting for rare stars that are almost exactly like our own, but at different stages of their lives,” stated the European Southern Observatory.

ESO’s Very Large Telescope — guided by a team led by the University of Sao Paulo’s Jorge Melendez — examined HIP 102152 with a spectrograph that broke up the light into various colors, revealing properties such as chemical composition. Around the same time, they scrutinized 18 Scorpii, also considered to be a twin but one that is younger than the sun (2.9 billion years old)

So what can we predict about the Sun’s future? One thing puzzling scientists has been the amount of lithium in our closest stellar companion. Although the Big Bang (the beginning of the universe) created hydrogen, helium and lithium, only the first two elements are abundant in the Sun.

Periodic Table of Elements
Periodic Table of Elements

HIP 102152, it turns out, also has low levels of lithium. Why isn’t clear yet, ESO notes, although “several processes have been proposed to transport lithium from the surface of a star into its deeper layers, where it is then destroyed.” Previous observations of young Sun-like stars also show higher levels of lithium, implying something changes between youth and middle age.

The elder twin to our Sun may host another discovery: there could be Earth-sized planets circling the star. Chemical properties of HIP 102152 show that it has few elements that you see in meteorites and rocky planets, implying the elements are “locked up” in bodies close to the star. “This is a strong hint that HIP 102152 may host terrestrial rocky planets,” ESO stated.

Better yet, separate observations showed that there are no giant planets close to the star — leaving room for Earth-sized planets to flourish.

The research is available in a recent edition of Astrophysical Letters.

Source: European Southern Observatory

What’s Going On Inside This New Kind of Variable Star?

A new kind of variable star — 36 of that type, in fact — has been found in a single star cluster. Astronomers don’t even have a name for the star type yet, but feel free to leave some suggestions in the comments!

For now, however, astronomers are wondering what the implications are for our understanding of the stellar interiors.

“The very existence of this new class of variable stars is a challenge to astrophysicists,” stated Sophie Saesen, an astronomer at Geneva Observatory who participated in the research.

“Current theoretical models predict that their light is not supposed to vary periodically at all, so our current efforts are focused on finding out more about the behaviour of this strange new type of star.”

The head-scratching began when astronomers used a European Southern Observatory telescope to gaze at the “Pearl Cluster” (NGC 3766), an open star cluster about 5,800 light years from Earth.

Over seven years of observations with the Leonhard Euler Telescope (taking periodic measurements of brightness), astronomers spotted 36 stars with variable periods of between 2 and 20 hours.

The four-foot (1.2-meter) Leonhard Euler Telescope at the European Southern Observatory. Credit: M. Tewes/ESO
The four-foot (1.2-meter) Leonhard Euler Telescope at the European Southern Observatory. Credit: M. Tewes/ESO

Variable stars have been known for centuries, and many of them are tracked by amateur organizations such as the American Association of Variable Observers. As best as astronomers can figure, the stars become brighter and dimmer due to changes on the inside — stellar vibrations or “quakes” studied under a field called asteroseismology.

A special type of variable stars, called Cepheid variables, can provide accurate measurements of distance since they have an established ratio between luminosity and the period of their variability.

Studying various types of variable stars has provided some insights.

“Asteroseismology of ß Cep[hei] stars, for example, has opened the doors in the past decade to study their interior rotation and convective core,” the astronomers stated in a paper on the research.

The variations in brightness can be interpreted as vibrations, or oscillations within the stars, using a technique called asteroseismology. The oscillations reveal information about the internal structure of the stars, in much the same way that seismologists use earthquakes to probe the Earth's interior. Credit: Kepler Astroseismology team.
The variations in brightness can be interpreted as vibrations, or oscillations within the stars, using a technique called asteroseismology. The oscillations reveal information about the internal structure of the stars, in much the same way that seismologists use earthquakes to probe the Earth’s interior. Credit: Kepler Astroseismology team.

Despite the well-known nature of variable stars, few of them have been studied in open clusters such as NGC 3766.

The reason is it takes a lot of telescope time to take a look at the star — sometimes, years. And time with telescopes is both expensive and precious, making it difficult to allocate the time required.

“Stellar clusters are ideal environments to study stellar variability because some basic properties and the evolutionary status of individual star members can be derived from the properties of the cluster,” the astronomers stated.

“It, however, requires extensive monitoring on an as-long-as-possible time base line. This requirement may explain why not many clusters have been studied for their variability content so far, compared to the number of known and characterized clusters.”

These particular stars in NGC 3766, however, were puzzling.

“The stars are somewhat hotter and brighter than the Sun, but otherwise apparently unremarkable,” ESO stated, yet they had variations of about 0.1% of each star’s normal brightness.

Cepheid Variable Star.  Credit:  Hubble Space Telescope
Cepheid Variable Star. Credit: Hubble Space Telescope

It’s possible, but not proven yet, that perhaps the stars’ spin has something to do with the brightness.

Some of the observed objects whip around at speeds so fast that some material might be punted away from the star and into space, the astronomers wrote in a press release.

“In those conditions, the fast spin will have an important impact on their internal properties, but we are not able yet to adequately model their light variations,” stated Nami Mowlavi, another Geneva Observatory astronomer who led the paper.

Also, astronomers haven’t named this class of stars yet. Do you have any ideas? For more information and to generate suggestions, you can read the paper here in Astronomy & Astrophysics. Then you can leave your thoughts in the comments.

Source: European Southern Observatory

Dying Star Blows Surprising Spiral Bubble

Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, or ALMA, astronomers found an unexpected spiral structure surrounding the red giant star R Sculptoris shown here in this visualization. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

Sometimes what we can’t see is just as surprising as what lies directly in front of us. This especially holds true in a new finding from the astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/sumbillimeter Array, or ALMA, in Chile. A surprising and strange spiral structure surrounding the old star R Sculptoris is likely being created by an unseen companion, say astronomers.

The team using ALMA, the most powerful millimeter/submillimeter telescope in the world, mapped the spiral structure in three-dimensions. The astronomers say this is the first time a spiral of material, with a surrounding shell, has been observed. They report their findings in the journal Nature this week.

“We’ve seen shells around this kind of star before,” says lead author Matthias Maercker of the European Southern Observatory and Argelander Institute for Astronomy, University of Bonn, Germany in a press release. “But this is the first time we’ve ever seen a spiral of material coming out from a star, together with a surrounding shell.”

Scientists, using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope found a similar spiral, but without a surrounding shell, while observing the star LL Pegasi. Unlike the new ALMA observations, however, the astronomers could not create a three-dimensional map of the structure. Hubble observations saw the dust while ALMA detected the molecular emission.

ALMA detects the warm glow of carbon monoxide molecules in the far infrared through the multimeter wavelengths allowing astronomers to map the gas emissions surrounding the star in high-resolution. The team believes the strangely shaped bubble of material was probably created by an invisible companion star orbiting the red giant.

As stars like our Sun reach the ends of their lives, they become red giants. Swollen and cool, the stars begin a short-lived helium burning phase. During this time, the stars slough off large amounts of their mass in a dense stellar wind forming an expanding glowing shell around the stellar core. The pulses occur about every 10,000 to 50,000 years and last just a few hundred years. New observations of R Sculptoris show a pulse event rocked the star about 1,800 years ago and lasted for about 200 years. Computer simulations following the evolution of a binary system fit the new ALMA observations, according to the astronomers.

“It’s a real challenge to describe theoretically all the observed details coming from ALMA,” says co-author Shazrene Mohamed, of Argelander Institute for Astronomy in Bonn, Germany and South African Astronomical Observatory. “But our computer models show that we really are on the right track. ALMA is giving us new insight into what’s happening in these stars and what might happen to the Sun in a few billion years from now.”

A wide field view of the red giant variable star R Sculptoris. Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2. Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin

R Sculptoris is considered by astronomers to be an asymptotic giant branch, or AGB, star. With masses between 0.8 and 8 solar masses, they are cool red giants with a tiny central core of carbon and oxygen surrounded by a burning shell of helium and hydrogen burning. Eventually, our Sun will evolve into an AGB star. The glowing shell is made up of gas and dust, material that will be used for making future stars with their retinue of planets and moons and even the building blocks of life.

“In the near future, observations of stars like R Sculptoris with ALMA will help us to understand how the elements we are made up of reached places like the Earth. They also give us a hint of what our own star’s far future might be like,” says Maercker.

This new video shows a series of slices through the data, each taken at a slightly different frequency. These reveal the shell around the star, appearing as a circular ring, that seems to gets bigger and then smaller, as well as a clear spiral structure in the inner material that it best seen about half-way through the video sequence.

Source: European Southern Observatory

Small image caption: What appears to be a thin spiral pattern winding away from a star is shown in this remarkable picture from the Advanced Camera for Surveys on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows one of the most perfect geometrical forms created in space. It captures the formation of an unusual pre-planetary nebula, known as IRAS 23166+1655, around the star LL Pegasi (also known as AFGL 3068) in the constellation of Pegasus (the Winged Horse). Credit: NASA/ESA Hubble

Celestial Dreaming in a Bit of Pipe Smoke

Zoom into the Pipe Nebula by using the zoom slider, or pan around the image by using the arrow icons on the toolbar or by click-dragging the image. You can also zoom into a particular area by double-clicking on your area of interest. Image credit: ESO. Zoomify by John Williams.

Images like this of the Pipe Nebula from the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla Observatory help me dream about the grandeur of the night sky and the richness of the star lanes that make up the Milky Way.

Continue reading “Celestial Dreaming in a Bit of Pipe Smoke”

Remastering a Cosmic Cat Print

Cat's Paw Nebula. Credit: ESO/R. Gendler & R.M. Hannahoe

Glowing red against a backdrop of stars, amateur astronomers have remastered one of the sky’s most distinctive nebulae, the Cat’s Paw Nebula.

In a stunning combination of data from amateur and professional telescopes, Robert Gendler and Ryan M. Hannahoe mixed their 60 hours of exposures of the nebula on a 0.4-meter telescope with existing images from the 2.2-meter MPG/ESO telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile. (See the original image.)

The result is nothing short of beautiful (zoom into all its nebular grandeur at StarryCritters.com). The Cat’s Paw Nebula, also known as NGC 6334, Gum 64 and the Bear Claw Nebula, is found about 5,500 light-years from Earth toward the constellation Scorpius, the Scorpion. The nebula is one of the most active star-forming regions in the Milky Way Galaxy, spanning about 50 light-years, and contains thousands of new stars although most are hidden in the dense clouds of gas and dust. Blistering ultraviolet radiation from these stars excites hydrogen atoms within the star cloud causing it to glow with a characteristic red hue. English astronomer John Herschel first described the nebula in 1837 while observing from the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.

Anyone using Adobe Photoshop might be familiar with the process used. By combining the luminance, or brightness, of the ESO image with color information from the pair’s long exposures, Gendler and Hannahoe were able to bring out more vibrant color, such as the faint blue nebulosity near the center of the nebula and surrounding some of the brighter stars. The image from the ESO telescope adds finer details.

Does anyone else see the similarity between the arched shape in the middle of the nebula with the Federation insignia from the popular television series Star Trek?

Image Credit: ESO/R. Gendler & R.M. Hannahoe