New Study Says Proxima b Could Support Life

Ever since the ESO announced the discovery of an extra-solar planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, scientists have been trying to determine what the conditions are like on this world. This has been especially important given the fact that while Proxima b orbits within the habitable zone of its sun, red dwarfs like Proxima Centauri are known to be somewhat inhospitable.

And while some research has cast doubt on the possibility that Proxima b could indeed support life, a new research study offers a more positive picture. The research comes from the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science (BMSIS) in Seattle, Washington, where astrobiologist Dimitra Atri has conducted simulations that show that Proxima b could indeed be habitable, assuming certain prerequisites were met.

Dr. Atri is a computational physicist whose work with the BMSIS includes the impacts of antiparticles and radiation on biological systems. For the sake of his study – “Modelling stellar proton event-induced particle radiation dose on close-in exoplanets“, which appeared recently in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Letters – he conducted simulations to measure the impact stellar flares from its sun would have on Proxima b.

Artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. The double star Alpha Centauri AB is visible to the upper right of Proxima itself. Credit: ESO
Artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. The double star Alpha Centauri AB is visible to the upper right of Proxima itself. Credit: ESO

To put this perspective, it is important to note how the Kepler mission has found a plethora of planets orbiting red dwarf stars in recent years, many of which are believed to be “Earth-like” and close enough to their suns to have liquid water on their surfaces. However, red dwarfs have a number of issues that do not bode well for habitability, which include their variable nature and the fact they are cooler and fainter than other classes of stars.

This means that any planet close enough to orbit within a red dwarf’s habitable zone would be subject to powerful solar flares – aka. Stellar Proton Events (SPEs) – and would likely be tidally-locked with the star. In other words, only one side would be getting the light and heat necessary to support life, but it would be exposed to a lot of solar protons, which would interact with its atmosphere to create harmful radiation.

As such, the astronomical community is interested in what kinds of conditions are there for planets like Proxima b so they might know if life has (or had) a shot at evolving there. For the sake of his study, Dr. Atri conducted a series of probability (aka. Monte Carlo) simulations that took into account three factors – the type and size of stellar flares, various thicknesses of the planet’s atmosphere and the strength of its magnetic field.

As Dr. Atri explained to Universe Today via email, the results were encouraging – as far as the implications for extra-terrestrial life are concerned:

“I used Monte Carlo simulations to study the radiation dose on the surface of the planet for different types of atmospheres and magnetic field configurations. The results are optimistic. If the planet has both a good magnetic field and a sizable atmosphere, the effects of stellar flares are insignificant even if the star is in an active phase.”
This infographic compares the orbit of the planet around Proxima Centauri (Proxima b) with the same region of the Solar System. Proxima Centauri is smaller and cooler than the Sun and the planet orbits much closer to its star than Mercury. As a result it lies well within the habitable zone, where liquid water can exist on the planet’s surface.
This infographic compares the orbit of the planet around Proxima Centauri (Proxima b) with the same region of the Solar System. Credit: ESO

In other words, Atri found that the existence of a strong magnetic field, which would also ensure that the planet has a viable atmosphere, would lead to survivable conditions. While the planet would still experience a spike in radiation whenever a superflare took place, life could survive on a planet like Proxima b in the long run. On the other hand, a weak atmosphere or magnetic field would foretell doom.

“If the planet does not have a significant magnetic field, chances of having any atmosphere and moderate temperatures are negligible,” he said. “The planet would be bombarded with extinction level superflares. Although in case of Proxima b, the star is in a stable condition and does not have violent flaring activity any more – past activity in its history would make the planet a hostile place for a biosphere to originate/evolve.”

History is the key word here, since red dwarf stars like Proxima Centauri have incredible longevity (as noted, up to 10 trillion years). According to some research, this makes red dwarf stars good candidates for finding habitable exoplanets, since it takes billions of years for complex life to evolve. But in order for life to be able to achieve complexity, planets need to maintain their atmospheres over these long periods of time.

Naturally, Atri admits that his study cannot definitively answer whether our closest exoplanet-neighbor is habitable, and that the debate on this is likely to continue for some time. “It is premature to think that Proxima b is habitable or otherwise,” he says. “We need more data about its atmosphere and the strength of its magnetic field.”

An artist’s depiction of planets transiting a red dwarf star in the TRAPPIST-1 System. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScl
An artist’s depiction of planets transiting a red dwarf star in the TRAPPIST-1 System. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScl

In the future, missions like the James Webb Space Telescope should tell us more about this system, its planet, and the kinds of conditions that are prevalent there. By aiming its extremely precise suite of instruments at this neighboring star, it is sure to detect transits of the planet around this faint sun. One can only hope that it finds evidence of a dense atmosphere, which will hint at the presence of a magnetic field and life-supporting conditions.

Hope is another key word here. Not only would a habitable Proxima b be good news for those of us hoping to find life beyond Earth, it would also be good news as far as the existence of life throughout the Universe is concerned. Red dwarf stars make up 70% of the stars in spiral galaxies and more than 90% of all stars in elliptical galaxies. Knowing that even a fraction of these could support life greatly increases the odds of finding intelligence out there!

Further Reading: MNRASL

What’s the Most Stable Shape for an Interstellar Lightsail?

In 2015, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner founded Breakthrough Initiatives with the intention of bolstering the search for extra-terrestrial life. Since that time, the non-profit organization – which is backed by Stephen Hawking and Mark Zuckerberg – has announced a number of advanced projects. The most ambitious of these is arguably Project Starshot, an interstellar mission that would make the journey to the nearest star in just 20 years.

This concept involves an ultra-light nanocraft that would rely on a laser-driven sail to achieve speeds of up to 20% the speed of light. Naturally, for such a mission to be successful, a number of engineering challenges have to be tackled first. And according to a recent study by a team of international researchers, two of the most important issues are the shape of the sail itself, and the type of laser involved.

The researchers include Elena Popova of the Skobeltsyn Institute of Nuclear Physics in Moscow; Messoud Efendiev of the Institute of Computational Biology (ICB) at the German Research Center for Environmental Health (GmbH); and Ildar Gabitov of the Skoltech Center for Photonics and Quantum Materials in Moscow. Combining their expertise, they conducted a study that examined various stability models for this proposed mission.

As they indicate in their study, titled “On the Stability of a Space Vehicle Riding on an Intense Laser Beam“, the team ran stability simulations 0n the concept, taking into account the nature of the wafer-sized craft (aka. StarChip), the sail (aka. Lightsail) and the nature of the laser itself. For the sake of these simulations, they also factored in a number of assumptions about Starshot’s design.

These included the notion that the StarChip would be a rigid body (i.e. made up of solid material), that the circular sail would either be flat, spherical or conical (i.e. concave in shape), and that the surface of the sail would reflect the laser light. Beyond this, they played with multiple variations on the design, and came up with some rather telling results.

As Dr. Elena Popova, the lead author on the paper, told Universe Today via email:

“We considered different shapes of sail: a) spherical (coincides with parabolic for small sizes) as most appropriate for final configuration of nanocraft en route; b) conical; c) flat (simplest) (will be seen to be unstable so that even spinning of craft does not help).”

What they found was that the simplest, stable configuration would involve a sail that was spherical in shape. It would also require that the StarChip be tethered at a sufficient distance from the sail, one which would be longer than the curvature radius of the sail itself.

A phased laser array, perhaps in the high desert of Chile, propels sails on their journey. Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives.
A phased laser array, perhaps in the high desert of Chile, propels sails on their journey. Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives

“For the sail with almost flat cone shape we obtained similar stability condition,” said Popova. “The nanocraft with flat sail is unstable in every case. It simply corresponds to the case of infinite radius of curvature of the sale. Hence, there is no way to extend center of mass beyond it.”

As for the laser, they considered several how the two main types would effect stability. This included uniform lasers that have a sharp boundary and “Gaussian” beams, which are characterized by high-intensity in the middle that declines rapidly towards the edges. As Dr. Popova stated, they determined that in order to ensure stability – and that the craft wouldn’t be lost to space – a uniform laser was the way to go.

“The nanocraft driven by intense laser beam pressure acting on its Lightsail is sensitive to the torques and lateral forces reacting on the surface of the sail. These forces influence the orientation and lateral displacement of the spacecraft, thus affecting its dynamics. If unstable the nanocraft might even be expelled from the area of laser beam. The most dangerous perturbations in the position of nanocraft inside the beam and its orientation relative to the beam axis are those with direct coupling between rotation and displacement (“spin-orbit coupling”).”

In the end, these were very similar to the conclusions reached by Professor Abraham Loeb and his colleagues at Starshot. In addition to being the Frank B. Baird, Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University, Prof. Loeb is also the chairman of the Breakthrough Foundation’s Advisory Board. In a study titled Stability of a Light Sail Riding on a Laser Beam” (published on Sept, 29th, 2016), they too examined what was necessary to ensure a stable mission.

This included the benefits of a conical vs. a spherical sail, and a uniform vs. a Gaussian beam. As Prof. Loeb told Universe Today via email:

“We found that a parachute-shaped sail riding on a Gaussian laser beam is unstable… We show in our paper that a sail shaped as a spherical shell (like a large ping-pong ball) can ride in a stable fashion on a laser beam that is shaped like a cylinder (or 3-4 lasers that establish a nearly circular illumination).”

As for the recommendations about the StarChip being at a sufficient distance from the LightSail, Prof. Loeb and his colleagues are of a different mind. “They argue that in case you attach a weight to the sail that is sufficiently well separated from the parachute, you might make it stable.” he said. “Even if this is true, it is unclear that their proposal is useful because such a configuration is rather complicated to build and launch.”

These are just a few of the engineering challenges facing an interstellar mission. Back in September, another study was released that assessed the risk of collisions and how it might effect the Starshot mission. In this case, the researchers suggested that the sail have a layer of shielding to absorb impacts, and that the laser array be used to clear debris in the LightSail’s path.

These conclusions echoed a similar study produced by Professor Phillip Lubin and his colleagues. A professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), Lubin is also one of the chief architects of Project Starshot and the mind behind the NASA-funded Directed Energy Propulsion for Interstellar Exploraiton (DEEP-IN) project and the Directed Energy Interstellar Study.

When Milner and the science team behind Starshot first announced their intention to create an interstellar spacecraft (in April 2016), they were met with a great deal of enthusiasm and skepticism. Understandably, many believed that such a mission was too ambitious, due to the challenges involved. But with every challenge that has been addressed, both by the Starshot team and outside researchers, the mission architecture has evolved.

At this rate, barring any serious complications, we may be seeing an interstellar mission taking place within a decade or so. And, barring any hiccups in the mission, we could be exploring Alpha Centauri or Proxima b up close within our lifetime!

Further Reading: arXiv

Planets Around Stars like Proxima Centauri are Probably Earth-Sized Water Worlds

Proxima b is the subject of a lot interest these days. And why not? As the closest extrasolar planet to our Solar System, it is the best shot we have at studying exoplanets up close in the near future. However, a recent study from the University of Marseilles indicated that, contrary to what many hoped, the planet may be a “water world” – i.e. a planet where up to half of its mass consists of water.

And now, researchers from the University of Bern have taken this analysis a step further. Based on their study, which has been accepted for publication in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics (A&A), they have determined that the majority planets that form within the habitable zones of a red dwarf star may be water worlds. These findings could have drastic implications for the search for habitable exoplanets around red dwarf stars.

The research was conducted by Dr. Yann Alibert from the National Centers for Competence in Research (NCCR) PlanetS center and Prof. Willy Benz from the Center of Space and Habitability (CSH). Both of these institutions, which are located at the University of Bern, are dedicated to understanding planetary formation and evolution, as well as fostering a dialogue with the public about exoplanet research.

An artist’s depiction of planets transiting a red dwarf star in the TRAPPIST-1 System. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScl
An artist’s depiction of planets transiting a red dwarf star in the TRAPPIST-1 System. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScl

For the sake of their study, titled “Formation and Composition of Planets Around Very Low Mass Stars“, Alibert and Benz carried out the first computer simulation designed to examine the formation of planets around stars that are ten times less massive than our Sun. This involved creating a model that included hundreds of thousands of identical low-mass stars, which were then given orbiting protoplanetary disks of dust and gas.

They then simulated what would happen if planets began to form from the accretion of these disks. For each, they assumed the existence of ten “planetary embryos” (equal to the mass of the Moon) which would grow and migrate over time, giving rise to a system of planets.

Ultimately, what they found was that the planets orbiting within the habitable zone of their parent star would likely to be comparable in size to Earth – ranging from 0.5 to 1.5 times the radius of Earth, with 1 Earth radii being the average. As Dr. Yann Alibert explained to Universe Today via email:

“In the simulations we have considered here, it appears that the majority of the mass (more than 99%) is in the solids. [W]e therefore start with a protoplanetary disk that is made of solids and gas and 10 planetary embryos. The solids in the disk are planetesimals (similar to present day asteriods, around 1 km in size), that can be dry (if they are located in the hot regions of the protoplanetary disk) or wet (around 50% per mass of water ice, if they are in the cold regions of the disk). The planetary embryos are small bodies, whose mass is similar to the moon mass. We then compute how much of the disk solids are capture by the planetary embryos.”

Artist's impression of the view from the most distant exoplanet discovered around the red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser.
Artist’s impression of the view from the most distant exoplanet discovered around the red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser.

In addition, the simulations produced some interesting estimates on how much of the planets would consist of water. In 90% of cases, water would account for more than 10% of the planets’ mass. Compare that to Earth, where water covers over 70% of our surface, but makes up only about 0.02% of our planet’s total mass. This would mean that the exoplanets would have very deep oceans and a layer of ice at the bottom, owing to the extreme pressure.

Last, but not least, Alibert and Benze found that if the protoplanetary disks that these planets formed from lived longer than the models suggested, the situation would be even more extreme. All of this could be dire news for those hoping that we might find ET living next door, or that red dwarf stars are the best place to look for intelligent life.

“The fact that many planets are water rich could have potentially very strong (and negative) consequence on the habitability of such planets,” said Dr. Alibert. “In fact, we already showed in other articles (Alibert et al 2013, Kitzmann et al. 2015) that if there is too much water on a planet, this may lead to an unstable climate, and an atmosphere that could be very rich in CO2.”

However, Alibert indicates that these two studies were conducted based on planets that orbit stars similar to our Sun. Red dwarfs are different because they evolve much slower (i.e. the luminosity changes very slowly over time) and they are far more red than our Sun, meaning that the light coming from them has different wavelengths that will interact different with planetary atmospheres.

Artist’s impression of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Artist’s impression of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

“So, to summarize, it could be that the presence of large amounts of water is not so bad as in the case of solar type stars, but it could also well be that it is even worse for reasons that we do not know,” said Alibert. “Whatever the effect, it is something that is important to study, and we have started working on this subject.”

But regardless of whether or not planets that orbit red dwarf stars are habitable, simulations like this one are still exciting. Aside from offering data on what neighboring planets might look like, they also help us to understand the wide range of possibilities that await us out there. And last, they give us more incentive to actually get out there and explore these worlds up close.

Only be sending missions to other stars can we confirm or deny if they are capable of supporting life. And if in the end, we should find that the most common star in the Universe is unlikely to produce life-giving planets, it only serves to remind us how rare and precious “Earth-like” planets truly are.

Further Reading: University of Bern, arXiv

Turns out Proxima Centauri is Strikingly Similar to our Sun

In August of 2016, the European Southern Observatory announced that the nearest star to our own – Proxima Centauri – had an exoplanet. Since that time, considerable attention has been focused on this world (Proxima b) in the hopes of determining just how “Earth-like” it really is. Despite all indications of it being terrestrial and similar in mass to Earth, there are some lingering doubts about its ability to support life.

This is largely due to the fact that Proxima b orbits a red dwarf. Typically, these low mass, low temperature, slow fusion stars are not known for being as bright and warm as our Sun. However, a new study produced by researchers at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) has indicated that Proxima Centauri might be more like our star than we thought.

For instance, our Sun has what is known as a “Solar Cycle“, an 11-year period in which it experiences changes in the levels of radiation it emits. This cycle is driven by changes in the Sun’s own magnetic field, and corresponds to the appearance of Sunspots on its surface. During a “solar minimum”, the Sun’s surface is clear of spots, while at a solar maximum, one hundred sunspots can appear on an area the size of 1% the Sun’s surface area.

This image is a composite of 25 separate images spanning the period of April 16, 2012, to April 15, 2013. It uses the SDO AIA wavelength of 171 angstroms and reveals the zones on the sun where active regions are most common during this part of the solar cycle. Credit: NASA/SDO/AIA/S. Wiessinger
Composite of 25 separate images spanning the period of April 16, 2012, to April 15, 2013, revealing active regions during this part of the Solar Cycle. Credit: NASA/SDO/AIA/S. Wiessinger

For the sake of their research, the Harvard Smithsonian team examined Proxima Centauri over the course of several years to see if it too had a cycle. As they explain in their research paper, titled “Optical, UV, and X-Ray Evidence for a 7-Year Stellar Cycle in Proxima Centauri” they relied on several years worth optical, UV, and X-ray observations made of the star.

This included 15 years of visual data and 3 years of infrared data from the All Sky Automated Survey (ASAS), 4 years of x-ray and UV data from the Swift x-ray telescope (XRT), and 22 years worth of x-ray observations taken by the Advanced Satellite for Cosmology and Astrophysics (ASCA), the XXM-Newton mission and the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

What they found was that Proxima Centauri does indeed have a cycle that involves changes in its minimum and maximum amount of emitting radiation, which corresponds to “starspots” on its surface. As Dr. Wargelin told Universe Today via email:

“The optical/ASAS data showed a nice 7-year cycle, as well as an 83-day rotation period. When we broke down that data by year we saw the period vary from around 77 to 90 days. We interpret that as ‘differential rotation’ like that found on the Sun. The rotation rate differs at different latitudes; on the Sun it’s around 35 days at the poles and 24.5 at the equator. The “average” rotation is usually given as 27.3 days.”

In essence, Proxima Centauri has its own cycle, but one that is a lot more dramatic than our Sun’s. Besides lasting 7 years from peak to peak, it involves spots covering over 20% of its surface at one time. These spots are apparently much bigger than the ones we regularly observe on our Sun as well.

X-Ray image of Proxima Centauri. Image credit: Chandra
An X-Ray image of Proxima Centauri. Credit: Chandra/Harvard/NASA

This was surprising, given that Proxima’s interior is very different from our Sun’s. Because of its low mass, the interior of Proxima Centauri is convective, where material in the core is transferred outward. In contrast, only the outer layer of our Sun undergoes convection while the core remains relatively still. This means that, unlike our Sun, energy is transferred to the surface through physical movement, and not radiative processes.

While these findings cannot tell us anything directly about whether or not Proxima b might be habitable, the existence of this solar cycle is an interesting find that might be leading in that general direction. As Dr. Wargelin explained:

“Magnetic fields are what drive high energy emission (UV and X rays) and stellar winds (like the solar wind) in solar-type and smaller stars, AND a stellar cycle (if it has one). That X-ray/UV emission and stellar wind can ionize/evaporate/strip the atmosphere of close-in planets, particularly if the planet doesn’t have a protective magnetic field of its own.

“Therefore….. a necessary but not sufficient requirement for understanding (i.e., modeling) the evolution of a planet’s atmosphere is understanding the magnetic field of the host star.  If you don’t understand why a star has a cycle (and standard theory says fully convective stars like Proxima can NOT have cycles) then you don’t understand its magnetic field.”

As always, further observations and research will be necessary before we can fully understand Proxima Centauri, and whether or not any planets that orbit it could support life. But then again, we’ve only known about Proxima b for a short time, and the rate at which we are learning new things about it is quite impressive!

Further Reading: CfA, arXiv

Is Proxima Centauri b Basically Kevin Costner’s Waterworld?

Artist's depiction of a waterworld. A new study suggests that Earth is in a minority when it comes to planets, and that most habitable planets may be greater than 90% ocean. Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)

The discovery of an exoplanet candidate orbiting around nearby Proxima Centauri has certainly been exciting news. In addition to being the closest exoplanet to our Solar System yet discovered, all indications point to it being terrestrial and located within the stars’ circumstellar habitable zone. However, this announcement contained its share of bad news as well.

For one, the team behind the discovery indicated that given the nature of its orbit around Proxima Centauri, the planet likely in terms of how much water it actually had on its surface. But a recent research study by scientists from the University of Marseilles and the Carl Sagan Institute may contradict this assessment. According to their study, the exoplanet’s mass may consist of up to 50% water – making it an “ocean planet”.

According to the findings of the Pale Red Dot team, Proxima Centauri b orbits its star at an estimated distance of 7 million kilometers (4.35 million mi) – only 5% of the Earth’s distance from the Sun. It also orbits Proxima Centauri with an orbital period of 11 days, and either has a synchronous rotation, or a 3:2 orbital resonance (i.e. three rotations for every two orbits).

Artist’s impression of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Artist’s impression of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Because of this, liquid water is likely to be confined to either the sun-facing side of the planet (in the case of a synchronous rotation), or in its tropical zone (in the case of a 3:2 resonance). In addition, the radiation Proxima b receives from its red dwarf star would be significantly higher than what we are used to here on Earth.

However, according to a study led by Bastien Brugger of the Astrophysics Laboratory at the University of Marseilles, Proxima b may be wetter than we previously thought. For the sake of their study, titled “Possible Internal Structures and Compositions of Proxima Centauri b” (which was accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters), the research team used internal structure models to compute the radius and mass of Proxima b.

Their models were based on the assumptions that Proxima b is both a terrestrial planet (i.e. composed of rocky material and minerals) and did not have a massive atmosphere. Based on these assumptions, and mass estimates produced by the Pale Red Dot survey (~1.3 Earth masses), they concluded that Proxima b has a radius that is between 0.94 and 1.4 times that of Earth, and a mass that is roughly 1.1 to 1.46 times that of Earth.

As Brugger told Universe Today via email:

“We listed all compositions that Proxima b could have, and ran the model for each of them (that makes about 5000 simulations), giving us each time the corresponding planet radius. We finally excluded all the results that were not compatible with a planetary body, basing on the formation conditions of our solar system (since we do not know these conditions for the Proxima Centauri system). And thus, we obtained a range of possible planet radii for Proxima b, going from 0.94 to 1.40 times the radius of the Earth.”

Goldilocks Zone
Tidally-locked planets like Gliese 581 g (artist’s impression) are likely to be “eyeball” worlds, with a warm-water ocean on the sun-facing side surrounded by ice. Credit: Lynette Cook/NSF

This range in size allows for some very different planetary compositions. At the lower end, being slightly smaller but a bit more massive than Earth, Proxima b would likely be a Mercury-like planet with a 65% core mass fraction. However, at the higher end of the radii and mass estimates, Proxima b would likely be half water by mass.

“If the radius is 0.94 Earth radii, then Proxima b is fully rocky with a huge metallic core (like Mercury in the solar system),” said Brugger. “On the opposite, Proxima b can reach a radius of 1.40 only if it harbors a massive amount of water (50% of the total planet mass), and in this case it would be an ocean planet, with a 200 km deep liquid ocean! Below that, the pressure is so high that the water would turn into ice, forming a ~3000 km thick ice layer (Under which there would be a core made of rocks).”

In other words, Proxima b could be an “eyeball planet”, where the sun-facing side has a liquid ocean surface, while the dark side is covered in frozen ice. Recent studies have suggested that this may be the case with planet’s that orbit within the habitable zones of red dwarf stars, where tidal-locking ensures that only one side gets the heat necessary to maintain liquid water on the surface.

On the other hand, if it has an orbital resonance of 3:2, its likely to have a double-eyeball pattern – with liquid oceans in both the eastern and western hemispheres – while remaining frozen at the terminators and poles. However, if the lower estimates should be true, then Proxima b is likely to be a rocky, dense planet where liquid water is rare on one side, and frozen on the other.

Artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. The double star Alpha Centauri AB is visible to the upper right of Proxima itself. Credit: ESO
Artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. New research suggest the planet may be more watery than previously thought. Credit: ESO

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the the research is that it offers a glimpse into the likelihood of Proxima b being habitable. Ever since its discovery, the question of whether or not the planet can support life has remained contentious. But as Brugger explained:

“The interesting part is that all the cases we considered are compatible with a habitable planet. So if the planet radius is finally measured (in some months or years), two cases are possible: either (i) the measurement lies within the 0.94-1.40 range and we will be able to give the exact composition of the planet (and not only a range of possibilities), or (ii) the measured radius is out of this range, and we will know that the planet is not habitable. The case where Proxima b is an ocean planet is particularly interesting, because this kind of planet does not need an atmosphere of oxygen and nitrogen (like on the Earth) to harbor life, since it can develop in its huge ocean.”

But of course, these scenarios are based on the assumption that Proxima b has a lot in common with the planets of our own Solar System. It’s also based on the assumption that the planet is indeed about 1.3 Earth masses. Until the planet can be observed making a transit of Proxima Centauri, astronomers won’t know for sure how massive it is.

Ultimately, we’re still a long ways away from determining Proxima b’s exact size, composition, and surface features – to say nothing about whether or not it can actually support life. Nevertheless, research like this is beneficial in that it helps us to come up with constrains on what kind of planetary conditions could exist there.

And who knows? Someday, we may be able to send probes or crewed missions to the planet, and perhaps they will beam back images of sentient beings navigating vast oceans, looking for some fabled parcel of land they heard about? God I hope not! Once was more than enough!

Further Reading: arXiv

Who Else Is Looking For Cool Worlds Around Proxima Centauri?

Finding exoplanets is hard work. In addition to requiring seriously sophisticated instruments, it also takes teams of committed scientists; people willing to pour over volumes of data to find the evidence of distant worlds. Professor Kipping, an astronomer based at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, is one such person.

Within the astronomical community, Kipping is best known for his work with exomoons. But his research also extends to the study and characterization of exoplanets, which he pursues with his colleagues at the Cool Worlds Laboratory at Columbia University. And what has interested him most in recent years is finding exoplanets around our Sun’s closest neighbor – Proxima Centauri.

Kipping describes himself as a “modeler”, combining novel theoretical modeling with modern statistical data analysis techniques applied to observations. He is also the Principal Investigator (PI) of The Hunt for Exomoons with Kepler (HEK) project and a fellow at the Harvard College Observatory. For the past few years, he and his team have been taking the hunt for exoplanets to the local stellar neighborhood.

The inspiration for this search goes back to 2012, when Kipping was at a conference and heard the news about a series of exoplanets being discovery around Kepler 42 (aka. KOI-961). Using data from the Kepler mission, a team from the California Institute of Technology discovered three exoplanets orbiting this red dwarf star, which is located about 126 light years from Earth.

At the time, Kipping recalled how the author of the study – Professor Philip Steven Muirhead, now an associate professor at the Institute for Astrophysical Research at Boston University – commented that this star system looked a lot like our nearest red dwarf stars – Barnard’s Star and Proxima Centauri.

In addition, Kepler 42’s planets were easy to spot, given that their proximity to the star meant that they completed an orbital period in about a day. Since they pass regularly in front of their star, the odds of catching sight of them using the Transit Method were good.

As Prof. Kipping told Universe Today via email, this was the “ah-ha moment” that would inspire him to look at Proxima Centauri to see if it too had a system of planets:

“We were inspired by the discovery of planets transiting KOI-961 by Phil Muirhead and his team using the Kepler data. The star is very similar to Proxima, a late M-dwarf harboring three sub-Earth sized planets very close to the star. It made me realize that if that system was around Proxima, the transit probability would be 10% and the star’s small size would lead to quite detectable signals.”

The MOST satellite, a Canadian built space telescope. Credit: Canadian Space Agency
The MOST satellite, a Canadian built space telescope. Credit: Canadian Space Agency

In essence, Kipping realized that if such a planetary system also existed around Proxima Centauri, a star with similar characteristics, then they would very easy to detect. After that, he and his team began attempting to book time with a space telescope. And by 2014-15, they had been given permission to use the Canadian Space Agency’s Microvariability and Oscillation of Stars (MOST) satellite.

Roughly the same size as a suitcase, the MOST satellite weighs only 54 kg and is equipped with an ultra-high definition telescope that measures just 15 cm in diameter. It is the first Canadian scientific satellite to be placed in orbit in 33 years, and was the first space telescope to be entirely designed and built in Canada.

Despite its size, MOST is ten times more sensitive than the Hubble Space Telescope. In addition, Kipping and his team knew that a mission to look for transiting exoplanets around Proxima Centauri would be too high-risk for something like Hubble. In fact, the CSA initially rejected their applications for this same reason.

“MOST initially denied us because they wanted to look at Alpha Centauri following the announcement by Dumusque et al. of a planet there,” said Kipping. “So understandably Proxima, for which no planets were known at the time, was not as high priority as Alpha Cen. We never even tried for Hubble time, it would be a huge ask to stare HST at a single star for months on end with just a a 10% chance for success.”

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 iby the European Southern Observatory on October 17, 2012. Credit: ESO

By 2014 and 2015, they secured permission to use MOST and observed Proxima Centauri twice – in May of both years. From this, they acquired a month and half’s-worth of space-based photometry, which they are currently processing to look for transits. As Kipping explained, this was rather challenging, since Proxima Centauri is a very active star – subject to star flares.

“The star flares very frequently and prominently in our data,” he said. “Correcting for this effect has been one the major obstacles in our analysis. On the plus side, the rotational activity is fairly subdued. The other issue we have is that MOST orbits the Earth once every 100 minutes, so we get data gaps every time MOST goes behind the Earth.”

Their efforts to find exoplanets around Proxima Centauri are especially significant in light of the European Southern Observatory’s recent announcement about the discovery of a terrestrial exoplanet within Proxima Centauri’s habitable zone (Proxima b). But compared to the ESO’s Pale Red Dot project, Kipping and his team were relying on different methods.

As Kipping explained, this came down to the difference between the Transit Method and the Radial Velocity Method:

“Essentially, we seek planets which have the right alignment to transit (or eclipse) across the face of the star, whereas radial velocities look for the wobbling motion of a star in response to the gravitational influence of an orbiting planet. Transits are always less likely to succeed for a given star, because we require the alignment to be just right. However, the payoff is that we can learn way more about the planet, including things like it’s size, density, atmosphere and presence of moons and rings.”

Artist’s impression of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Artist’s impression of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

In the coming months and years, Kipping and his team may be called upon to follow up on the success of the ESO’s discovery. Having detected Proxima b using the Radial Velocity method, it now lies to astronomers to confirm the existence of this planet using another detection method.

In addition, much can be learned about a planet through the Transit Method, which would be helpful considering all the things we still don’t know about Proxima b. This includes information about its atmosphere, which the Transit Method is often able to reveal through spectroscopic measurements.

Suffice it to say, Kipping and his colleagues are quite excited by the announcement of Proxima b. As he put it:

“This is perhaps the most important exoplanet discovery in the last decade. It would be bitterly disappointing if Proxima b does not transit though, a planet which is paradoxically so close yet so far in terms of our ability to learn more about it. For us, transits would not just be the icing on the cake, serving merely as a confirmation signal – rather, transits open the door to learning the intimate secrets of Proxima, changing Proxima b from a single, anonymous data point to a rich world where each month we would hear about new discoveries of her nature and character.”

This coming September, Kipping will be joining the faculty at Columbia University, where he will continue in his hunt for exoplanets. One can only hope that those he and his colleagues find are also within reach!

Further Reading: Cool Worlds