Proxima Centauri Just Released a Deadly Flare, so it’s Probably not a Great Place for Habitable Planets

Since it’s discovery was announced in August of 2016, Proxima b has been an endless source of wonder and the target of many scientific studies. As the closest extra-solar planet to our Solar System – and a terrestrial planet that orbits within Proxima Centauri’s circumstellar habitable zone (aka. “Goldilocks Zone”) – scientists have naturally wondered whether or not this planet could be habitable.

Unfortunately, many of these studies have emphasized the challenges that life on Proxima b would likely face, not the least of which is harmful radiation from its star. According to a recent study, a team of astronomers used the ALMA Observatory to detect a large flare emanating from Proxima Centauri. This latest findings, more than anything, raises questions about how habitable its exoplanet could be.

The study, titled “Detection of a Millimeter Flare from Proxima Centauri“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. Led by Meredith A. MacGregor, an NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow at the Carnegie Institution for Science, the team also included members from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and the University of Colorado Boulder.

Artist’s impression of Proxima b, which was discovered using the Radial Velocity method. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

For the sake of their study, the team used data obtained by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) between January 21st to April 25th, 2017. This data revealed that the star underwent a significant flaring event on March 24th, where it reached a peak that was 1000 times brighter than the star’s quiescent emission for a period of ten seconds.

Astronomers have known for a long time that when compared to stars like our Sun, M-type stars are variable and unstable. While they are the smallest, coolest, and dimmest stars in our Universe, they tend to flare up at a far greater rate. In this case, the flare detected by the team was ten times larger than our Sun’s brightest flares at similar wavelengths.

Along with a smaller preceding flare, the entire event lasted fewer than two minutes of the 10 hours that ALMA was observing the star between January and March of last year. While it was already known that Proxima Centauri, like all M-type stars, experiences regular flare activity, this one appeared to be a rare event. However, stars like Proxima Centauri are also known to experienced regular, although smaller, X-ray flares.

All of this adds up to a bad case for habitability. As MacGregor explained in a recent NRAO press statement:

“It’s likely that Proxima b was blasted by high energy radiation during this flare. Over the billions of years since Proxima b formed, flares like this one could have evaporated any atmosphere or ocean and sterilized the surface, suggesting that habitability may involve more than just being the right distance from the host star to have liquid water.”

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

MacGregor and her colleagues also considered the possibility that Proxima Centauri is circled by several disks of dust. This was suggested by a previous study (also based on ALMA data) that indicated that the light output of both the star and flare together pointed towards the existence of debris belts around the star. However, after examining the ALMA data as a function of observing time, they were able to eliminate this as a possibility.

As Alycia J. Weinberger, also a researcher with the Carnegie Institution for Science and a co-author on the paper, explained:

“There is now no reason to think that there is a substantial amount of dust around Proxima Cen. Nor is there any information yet that indicates the star has a rich planetary system like ours.”

To date, studies that have looked at possible conditions on Proxima b have come to different conclusions as to whether or not it could retain an atmosphere or liquid water on its surface. While some have found room for “transient habitability” or evidence of liquid water, others have expressed doubt based on the long-term effects that radiation and flares from its star would have on a tidally-locked planet.

In the future, the deployment of next-generation instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope are expected to provide more detailed information on this system. With precise measurements of this star and its planet, the question of whether or not life can (and does) exist in this system may finally be answered.

And be sure to enjoy this animation of Proxima Centauri in motion, courtesy of NRAO outreach:

Further Reading: NRAO, The Astrophysical Journal Letters

Astronomers Figure Out a New Way to Search for Planets at Alpha Centauri

At a distance of 4.37 light-years from Earth, Alpha Centauri is the nearest star system to our own. For generations, scientists and speculative thinkers have pondered whether it might have a planetary system like our own Sun, and whether or not life may also exist there. Unfortunately, recent efforts to locate extra-solar planets in this star system have failed, with potential detections later shown to be the result of artifacts in the data.

In response to these failed efforts, several more ambitious projects are being developed to find exoplanets around Alpha Centauri. These include direct-imaging space telescopes like Project Blue and the interstellar mission known as Breakthrough Starshot. But according to a new study led by researchers from Yale University, existing data can be used to determine the probability of planets in this system (and even which kind).

The study which detailed their findings recently appeared in The Astronomical Journal under the title “Planet Detectability in the Alpha Centauri System“. The study was led by Lily Zhao, a graduate student from Yale University and a fellow with the National Science Foundation (NSF), and was co-authored by Debora Fischer, John Brewer and Matt Giguere of Yale and Bárbara Rojas-Ayala of the Universidad Andrés Bello in Chile.

Artist’s impression of what the surface might look like on a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri system. Credit: Michael S. Helfenbein

For the sake of their study, Zhao and her team considered why efforts to locate planets within the the closest star system to our own have so far failed. This is surprising when one considers how, statistically speaking, Alpha Centauri is very likely to have a system if its own. As Prof. Fischer indicated in a recent Yale News press release:

The universe has told us the most common types of planets are small planets, and our study shows these are exactly the ones that are most likely to be orbiting Alpha Centauri A and B… Because Alpha Centauri is so close, it is our first stop outside our solar system. There’s almost certain to be small, rocky planets around Alpha Centauri A and B.”

In addition to being a professor of astronomy at Yale University, Debora Fischer is also one of the leaders of the Yale Exoplanets Group. As an expert in her field, Fischer has devoted decades of her life to researching exoplanets and searching for Earth analogues beyond our Solar System. With partial funding provided by NASA and the National Science Foundation, the team relied on existing data collected by some of the latest exoplanet-hunting instruments.

These included CHIRON, a spectrograph mounted on the Small and Moderate Aperture Research Telescope System (SMARTS) at the Cerro Telolo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile. This instrument was built by Fischer’s team, and the data it provided was combined with the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) and the Ultraviolet and Visual Echelle Spectrograph (UVES) instruments on the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT).

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

Using ten years of data collected by these instruments, Zhao and her colleagues then set up a grid system for the Alpha Centauri system. Rather than looking for signs of planets that did exist, they used the data to rule out what types of planets could not exist there. As Zhao told Universe Today via email:

“This study was special in that it used existing data of the Alpha Centauri system not to find planets, but to characterize what planets could not exist. By doing so, it returned more information about the system as a whole and provides guidance for future observations of this uniquely charismatic system. 

In addition, the team analyzed the chemical composition of the stars in the Alpha Centauri system to learn more about the kinds of material that would be available to form planets. Based on the different values obtained by observations campaigns conducted by different telescopes on Alpha Centauri’s three stars (Alpha, Beta and Proxima), they were able to place constraints on what kinds of planets could exist there. 

“We found that existing data rules out planets in the habitable zone above 53 Earth masses for alpha Centauri A, 8.4 Earth masses for Alpha Centauri B, and 0.47 Earth masses for Proxima Centauri,” said Zhao. “As for the chemical compositions, we found that the ratios of Carbon/Oxygen and Magnesium/Silicon for Alpha Centauri A and B are quite similar to that of the Sun.”

Artist’s impression of how the surface of a planet orbiting a red dwarf star may appear. Credit: M. Weiss/CfA

Basically, the results of their study effectively ruled out the possibility of any Jupiter-sized gas giants in the Alpha Centauri system. For Alpha Centauri A, they further found that planets that were less than 50 Earth masses could exist, while Alpha Centauri B might have planets smaller than 8 Earth masses. For Proxima Centauri, which we know to have at least one Earth-like planet, they determined that there might more that are less than half of Earth’s mass.

In addition to offering hope for exoplanet-hunters, this study carries with it some rather interesting implications for planetary habitability. Basically, the presence of rocky planets in the system is encouraging; but with no gas giants, a key ingredient in ensuring that planets remain habitable could be missing.

“[N]ot only could there still be habitable, Earth-mass planets around our closest stellar neighbors, but there also aren’t any gas giants that could endanger the survival of these potentially habitable, rocky planets,” said Zhao. “Furthermore, if these planets do exist, they are likely to have similar compositions to our very own Earth given the similarity in Alpha Cen A/B and our beloved Sun.”

At present, there are no instruments that have been able to confirm the existence of any exoplanets in Alpha Centauri. But as Zhao indicated, her and her teammates are optimistic that future surveys will have the necessary sensitivity to do it:

“[T]his very month has seen the commissioning of several next-generation instruments promising the precision necessary to discover these possible planets in the near future, and this analysis has shown that it is for sure worth it to keep looking!”

The ESO’s Paranal Observatory, located in the Atacama Desert of Chile. Credit: ESO

These include the ESO-built Echelle SPectrograph for Rocky Exoplanet and Stable Spectroscopic Observations (ESPRESSO) – which was recently installed at the Paranal Observatory – and the EXtreme PREcision Spectrometer (EXPRES) built at Yale University. This latter instrument is currently conducting an observation run at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, which Zhao is participating in.

“These instruments are promising a precision of down to 10-30 cm/s and should be able to detect many more smaller, and further away planets – such as habitable planets around the Centauri stars,” said Zhao. “The field of view of these two instruments are slightly different (ESPRESSO has the southern hemisphere, where Alpha Centauri is, while EXPRES covers the northern hemisphere, for instance where the Kepler and many of the K2 fields are).”

With new instruments at their disposal, and methods like the one Zhao and her team developed, the closest star system to Earth is sure to become a veritable treasure trove for astronomers and exoplanet-hunters in the coming years. And anything we find there will surely become targets for direct studies by groups like Project Blue and Breakthrough Starshot. If ET resides next door, we’re sure to hear about it soon!

Further Reading: Yale News, The Astronomical Journal

Proxima Centauri has a Cold Dust Belt that Could Indicate Even More Planets

Proxima Centauri, in addition to being the closest star system to our own, is also the home of the closest exoplanet to Earth. The existence of this planet, Proxima b, was first announced in August of 2016 and then confirmed later that month. The news was met with a great deal of excitement, and a fair of skepticism, as numerous studies followed t were dedicated to determining if this planet could in fact be habitable.

Another important question has been whether or not Proxima Centauri could have any more objects orbiting it. According to a recent study by an international team of astronomers, Proxima Centauri is also home to a belt of cold dust and debris that is similar to the Main Asteroid Belt and Kuiper Belt in our Solar System. The existence of this dusty belt could indicate the presence of more planets in this star system.

The study, titled “ALMA Discovery of Dust Belts Around Proxima Centauri“, recently appeared online and is scheduled to appear in the Monthly Notices of the Astronomical Society. The study was led by Guillem Anglada from the Astrophysical Institute of Andalusia (CSIS), and included members from the Institute of Space Sciences (IEEC), the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the Joint ALMA Observatory, and multiple universities.

View of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) site in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. Credit: A. Marinkovic/X-Cam/ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

For their study, the team relied on data obtained by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimter Array (ALMA) at the ALMA Observatory in Chile. These observations revealed the glow of a cold dust belt that is roughly 1 to 4 AUs from Proxima Centauri – one to four times the distance between the Earth and the Sun. This puts it significantly further out than Proxima b, which orbits its sun at a distance of 0.0485 AU (~5% of Earth’s distance from the Sun).

Dust belts are essentially the leftover material that did not form into larger bodies withing a star system. The particles of rock and ice in these belts vary in size from being smaller than a millimeter across to asteroids that are many kilometers in diameter. Based on their observations, the team estimated that the belt in Proxima Centauri has a total mass that is about one-hundredth the mass of Earth.

The team also estimated that this belt experiences temperatures of about 43 K (-230°C; -382 °F), making it as cold as the Kuiper Belt. As Dr. Anglada explained the significance of these findings in a recent ESO press release:

“The dust around Proxima is important because, following the discovery of the terrestrial planet Proxima b, it’s the first indication of the presence of an elaborate planetary system, and not just a single planet, around the star closest to our Sun.”

This infographic compares the orbit of the planet around Proxima Centauri (Proxima b) with the same region of the Solar System. Credit: ESO

The ALMA data also provided indications that Proxima Centauri might also have another belt located about ten times further out. In other words, Proxima Centauri may have two belts, just like our Solar System. If confirmed, this could indicate that this neighboring star also has a system of planets that fall within and between belts of unconsolidated material, which in turn is leftover from the early days of planet formation. As Dr. Anglada explained:

“This result suggests that Proxima Centauri may have a multiple planet system with a rich history of interactions that resulted in the formation of a dust belt. Further study may also provide information that might point to the locations of as yet unidentified additional planets.”

The very cold environment of this outer belt could also have some interesting implications, since its parent star is much dimmer than our own. Pedro Amado, who also hails from the Astrophysical Institute of Andalusia, was similarly enthusiastic about these findings. As he indicated, they are just the beginning of what is sure to be a long process of discovery about this system.

“These first results show that ALMA can detect dust structures orbiting around Proxima,” he said. “Further observations will give us a more detailed picture of Proxima’s planetary system. In combination with the study of protoplanetary discs around young stars, many of the details of the processes that led to the formation of the Earth and the Solar System about 4600 million years ago will be unveiled. What we are seeing now is just the appetiser compared to what is coming!”

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

This study is also likely to be of interest to those planning on conducting direct observations of the Alpha Centauri system, such as Project Blue. In the coming years, they hope to deploy a space telescope that will observe Alpha Centauri directly to study any exoplanets it may have. With a slight adjustment, this telescope could also take a gander at Proxima Centauri and aid in the hunt for a system of planets there.

And then there’s Breakthrough Starshot, the first proposed interstellar voyage which hopes to send a laser sail-driven nanocraft to Alpha Centauri in the coming decades. Recently, the scientists behind Starshot discussed the possibility of extending the mission to include a stopover in Proxima Centauri. Before such a mission can take place, the planners need to know what kind of dusty environment awaits it.

And of course, future studies will benefit from the deployment of next-generation instruments, like the James Webb Space Telescope (scheduled for launch in 2019) and the ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) – which is expected to collect its first light in 2024.

Further Reading: ESO, arXiv

Is Human Hibernation Possible? Going to Sleep for Long Duration Spaceflight

Sleeping for Centuries?

We’ve spent a few articles on Universe Today talking about just how difficult it’s going to be to travel to other stars. Sending tiny unmanned probes across the vast gulfs between stars is still mostly science fiction. But to send humans on that journey? That’s just a level of technology beyond comprehension.

For example, the nearest star is Proxima Centauri, located a mere 4.25 light years away. Just for comparison, the Voyager spacecraft, the most distant human objects ever built by humans, would need about 50,000 years to make that journey.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t anticipate living 50,000 years. No, we’re going to want to make the journey more quickly. But the problem, of course, is that going more quickly requires more energy, new forms of propulsion we’ve only starting to dream up. And if you go too quickly, mere grains of dust floating through space become incredibly dangerous.

Based on our current technology, it’s more likely that we’re going to have to take our time getting to another star.

And if you’re going to go the slower route, you’ve got a couple of options. Create a generational ship, so that successive generations of humans are born, live out their lives, and then die during the hundreds or even thousands of year long journey to another star.

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

Imagine you’re one of the people destined to live and die, never reaching your destination. Especially when you look out your window and watch a warp ship zip past with all those happy tourists headed to Proxima Centauri, who were start enough to wait for warp drives to be invented.

No, you want to sleep for the journey to the nearest star, so that when you get there, it’s like no time passed. And even if warp drive did get invented while you were asleep, you didn’t have to see their smug tourist faces as they zipped past.

Is human hibernation possible? Can we do it long enough to survive a long-duration spaceflight journey and wake up again on the other side?

Before I get into this, we’re just going to have to assume that we never merge with our robot overlords, upload ourselves into the singularity, and effortlessly travel through space with our cybernetic bodies.

For some reason, that whole singularity thing never worked out, or the robots went on strike and refused to do our space exploration for us any more. And so, the job of space travel fell to us, the fragile, 80-year lifespanned mammals. Exploring the worlds within the Solar System and out to other stars, spreading humanity into the cosmos.

Artist’s impression of astronauts exploring the surface of Mars. Credit: NASA/JSC/Pat Rawlings, SAIC

Come on, we know it’ll totally be the robots. But that’s not what the science fiction tells us, so let’s dig into it.

We see animals, and especially mammals hibernating all the time in nature. In order to be able survive over a harsh winter, animals are capable of slowing their heart rate down to just a few beats a minute. They don’t need to eat or drink, surviving on their fat stores for months at a time until food returns.

It’s not just bears and rodents that can do it, by the way, there are actually a couple of primates, including the fat-tailed dwarf lemur from Madagascar. That’s not too far away on the old family tree, so there might be hope for human hibernation after all.

In fact, medicine is already playing around with human hibernation to improve people’s chances to survive heart attacks and strokes. The current state of this technology is really promising.

They use a technique called therapeutic hypothermia, which lowers the temperature of a person by a few degrees. They can use ice packs or coolers, and doctors have even tried pumping a cooled saline solution through the circulatory system. With the lowered temperature, a human’s metabolism decreases and they fall unconscious into a torpor.

But the trick is to not make them so unconscious that they die. It’s a fine line.

The results have been pretty amazing. People have been kept in this torpor state for up to 14 days, going through multiple cycles.

The therapeutic use of this torpor is still under research, and doctors are learning if it’s helpful for people with heart attacks, strokes or even the progression of diseases like cancer. They’re also trying to figure out if there are any downsides, but so far, there don’t seem to be any long-term problems with putting someone in this torpor state.

A few years ago, SpaceWorks Enterprises delivered a report to NASA on how they could use this therapeutic hypothermia for long duration spaceflight within the Solar System.

Currently, a trip to Mars takes about 6-9 months. And during that time, the human passengers are going to be using up precious air, water and food. But in this torpor state, SpaceWorks estimates that the crew will a reduction in their metabolic rate of 50 to 70%. Less metabolism, less resources needed. Less cargo that needs to be sent to Mars.

Credit: SpaceWork Enterprises, Inc

The astronauts wouldn’t need to move around, so you could keep them nice and snug in little pods for the journey. And they wouldn’t get into fights with each other, after 6-9 months of nothing but day after day of spaceflight.

We know that weightlessness has a negative effect on the body, like loss of bone mass and atrophy of muscles. Normally astronauts exercise for hours every day to counteract the negative effects of the reduced gravity. But SpaceWorks thinks it would be more effective to just put the astronauts into a rotating module and let artificial gravity do the work of maintaining their conditioning.

They envision a module that’s 4 metres high and 8 metres wide. If you spin the habitat at 20 revolutions per minute, you give the crew the equivalent of Earth gravity. Go at only 11.8 RPM and it’ll feel like Mars gravity. Down to 7.8 and it’s lunar gravity.

Normally spinning that fast in a habitat that small would be extremely uncomfortable as the crew would experience different forces at different parts of their body. But remember, they’ll be in a state of torpor, so they really won’t care.

Credit: SpaceWork Enterprises, Inc
Credit: SpaceWork Enterprises, Inc

Current plans for sending colonists to Mars would require 40 ton habitats to support 6 people on the trip. But according to SpaceWorks, you could reduce the weight down to 15 tons if you just let them sleep their way through the journey. And the savings get even better with more astronauts.

The crew probably wouldn’t all sleep for the entire journey. Instead, they’d sleep in shifts for a few weeks. Taking turns to wake up, check on the status of the spacecraft and crew before returning to their cryosleep caskets.

What’s the status of this now? NASA funded stage 1 of the SpaceWorks proposal, and in July, 2016 NASA moved forward with Phase 2 of the project, which will further investigate this technique for Mars missions, and how it could be used even farther out in the Solar System.

Elon Musk should be interested in seeing their designs for a 100-person module for sending colonists to Mars.

Credit: SpaceWork Enterprises, Inc
Credit: SpaceWork Enterprises, Inc

In addition, the European Space Agency has also been investigating human hibernation, and a possible way to enable long-duration spaceflight. They have plans to test out the technology on various non-hibernating mammals, like pigs. If their results are positive, we might see the Europeans pushing this technology forward.

Can we go further, putting people to sleep for decades and maybe even the centuries it would take to travel between the stars?

Right now, the answer is no. We don’t have any technology at our disposal that could do this. We know that microbial life can be frozen for hundreds of years. Right now there are parts of Siberia unfreezing after centuries of permafrost, awakening ancient microbes, viruses, plants and even animals. But nothing on the scale of human beings.

When humans freeze, ice crystals form in our cells, rupturing them permanently. There is one line of research that offers some hope: cryogenics. This process replaces the fluids of the human body with an antifreeze agent which doesn’t form the same destructive crystals.

Scientists have successfully frozen and then unfrozen 50-milliliters (almost a quarter cup) of tissue without any damage.

In the next few years, we’ll probably see this technology expanded to preserving organs for transplant, and eventually entire bodies, and maybe even humans. Then this science fiction idea might actually turn into reality. We’ll finally be able to sleep our way between the stars.

A Novel Concept For Braking Breakthrough Starshot

In April of 2016, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announced the creation of Breakthrough Starshot. As part of his non-profit scientific organization (known as Breakthrough Initiatives), the purpose of Starshot was to design a lightsail nanocraft that would be capable of reaching the nearest star system – Alpha Centauri (aka. Rigel Kentaurus) – within our lifetime.

Since its inception, the scientists and engineers behind the Starshot concept have sought to address the challenges that such a mission would face. Similarly, there have been many in the scientific community who have also made suggestions as to how such a concept could work. The latest comes from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, where two researchers came up with a novel way of slowing the craft down once it reaches its destination.

To recap, the Starshot concept involves a small, gram-scale nanocraft being towed by a lightsail. Using a ground-based laser array, this lightsail would be accelerated to a velocity of about 60,000 km/s (37,282 mps) – or 20% the speed of light. At this speed, the nanocraft would be able to reach the closest star system to our own – Alpha Centauri, located 4.37 light-years away – in just 20 years time.

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

Naturally, this presents a number of technical challenges – which include the possibility of a collision with interstellar dust, the proper shape of the lightsail, and the sheer energy requirements for powering the laser array. But equally important is the idea of how such a craft would slow down once it reached its destination. With no lasers at the other end to apply breaking energy, how would the craft slow down enough to begin studying the system?

It was this very question that René Heller and Michael Hippke chose to address in their study, “Deceleration of high-velocity interstellar photon sails into bound orbits at Alpha Centauri“. Heller is an astrophysicts who is currently assisting the ESA with its preparations for the upcoming PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO) mission – an exoplanet hunter being deployed as part of their Cosmic Vision program.

With the help IT specialist Michael Hippke, the two considered what would be needed for interstellar mission to reach Alpha Centauri, and provide good scientific returns upon its arrival. This would require that braking maneuvers be conducted once it arrived so the the spacecraft would not overshoot the system in the blink of an eye. As they state in their study:

“Although such an interstellar probe could reach Proxima 20 years after launch, without propellant to slow it down it would traverse the system within hours. Here we demonstrate how the stellar photon pressures of the stellar triple Alpha Cen A, B, and C (Proxima) can be used together with gravity assists to decelerate incoming solar sails from Earth.”

The projected path a lightsail mission to Alpha Centauri could take, which would allow it to detour to Proxima Centauri. Credit: PHL @ UPR Arecibo.

For the sake of their calculations, Heller and Hippke estimated that the craft would weigh less than 100 grams (3.5 ounces), and would be mounted on a sail measuring 100,000 m² (1,076,391 square foot) in surface area. Once these were complete, Hippke adapted them into a series of computer simulations. Based on their results, they proposed an entirely new mission concept that do away with the need for lasers entirely.

In essence, their revised concept called for an Autonomous Active Sail (AAS) craft that would provide for its own propulsion and stopping power. This craft would deploy its sail while in the Solar System and use the Sun’s solar wind to accelerate it to high speeds. Once it reached the Alpha Centauri System, it would redeploy its sail so that incoming radiation from Alpha Centauri A and B would have the effect of slowing it down.

An added bonus of this proposed maneuver is that the craft, once it had been decelerated to the point that it could effectively explore the Alpha Centauri system, could then use a gravity assist from these stars to reroute itself towards Proxima Centauri. Once there, it could conduct the first up-close exploration of Proxima b – the closest exoplanet to Earth – and determine what its atmospheric and surface conditions are like.

Since the existence of this planet was first announced by the European Southern Observatory back in August of 2016, there has been much speculation about whether or not it could be habitable. Having a mission that could examine it to check for the telltale markers – a viable atmosphere, a magnetosphere, and liquid water on the surface – would surely settle that debate.

As Heller explained in a press release from the Max Planck Institute, this concept presents quite a few advantages, but comes with its share of trade offs – not the least of which is the time it would take to get to Alpha Centauri. “Our new mission concept could yield a high scientific return, but only the grandchildren of our grandchildren would receive it,” he said. “Starshot, on the other hand, works on a timescale of decades and could be realized in one generation. So we might have identified a longterm, follow-up concept for Starshot.”

At present, Heller and Hippke are discussing their concept with Breakthrough Starshot to see if it would be viable. One individual who has looked over their work is Professor Avi Loeb, the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University, and the chairman of the Breakthrough Foundation’s Advisory Board. As he told Universe Today via email, the concept put forth by Heller and Hippke is worthy of consideration, but has its limitations:

“If it is possible to slow down a spacecraft by starlight (and gravitational assist), then it is also possible to launch it in the first place by the same forces… If so, why is the recently announced Breakthrough Starshot project using a laser and not Sunlight to propel our spacecraft? The answer is that our envisioned laser array can push the sail with an energy flux that is a million times larger than the local solar flux.

“In using starlight to reach relativistic speeds, one must use an extremely thin sail. In the new paper, Heller and Hippke consider the example of a milligram instead of a gram-scale sail. For a sail of area ten square meters (as envisioned in our Starshot concept study), the thickness of their sail must be only a few atoms. Such a surface is orders of magnitude thinner than the wavelength of light that it aims to reflect, and so its reflectivity would be low. It does not appear feasible to reduce the weight by so many orders of magnitude and yet maintain the rigidity and reflectivity of the sail material.

“The main constraint in defining the Starshot concept was to visit Alpha Centauri within our lifetime. Extending the travel time beyond the lifetime of a human, as advocated in this paper, would make it less appealing to the people involved. Also, one should keep in mind that the sail must be accompanied by electronics which will add significantly to its weight.”

In short, if time is not a factor, we can envision that our first attempts to reach another Solar System may indeed involve an AAS being propelled and slowed down by solar wind. But if we’re willing to wait centuries for such a mission to be completed, we might also consider sending rockets with conventional engines (possibly even crewed ones) to Alpha Centauri.

But if we are intent on getting there within our own lifetimes, then a laser-driven sail or something similar will have be the way to go. Humanity has spent over half a century exploring what’s in our own backyard, and some of us are impatient to see what’s next door!

Further Reading: Max Planck Institute, ArXiv

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

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