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

Potentially Habitable Exoplanet Confirmed Around Nearest Star!

For years, astronomers have been observing Proxima Centauri, hoping to see if this red dwarf has a planet or system of planets around it. As the closest stellar neighbor to our Solar System, a planet here would also be our closest planetary neighbor, which would present unique opportunities for research and exploration.

So there was much excitement when, earlier this month, an unnamed source claimed that the ESO had spotted an Earth-sized planet orbiting within the star’s habitable zone. And after weeks of speculation, with anticipation reaching its boiling point, the ESO has confirmed that they have found a rocky exoplanet around Proxima Centauri – known as Proxima b.

Located just 4.25 light years from our Solar System, Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf star that is often considered to be part of a trinary star system – with Alpha Centauri A and B. For some time, astronomers at the ESO have been observing Proxima Centauri, primarily with telescopes at the La Silla Observatory in Chile.

Their interest in this star was partly due to recent research that has shown how other red dwarf stars have planets orbiting them. These include, but are not limited to, TRAPPIST-1, which was shown to have three exoplanets with sizes similar to Earth last year; and Gliese 581, which was shown to have at least three exoplanets in 2007.

The ESO also confirmed that the planet is potentially terrestrial in nature (i.e. rocky), similar in size and mass to Earth, and orbits its star with an orbital period of 11 days. But best of all are the indications that surface temperatures and conditions are likely suitable for the existence of liquid water.

It’s discovery was thanks to the Pale Red Dot campaign, a name which reflects Carl Sagan’s famous reference to the Earth as a “pale blue dot”. As part of this campaign, a team of astronomers led by Guillem Anglada-Escudé – from Queen Mary University of London – have been observing Proxima Centauri for signs of wobble (i.e. the Radial Velocity Method).

After combing the Pale Red Dot data with earlier observations made by the ESO and other observatories, they noted that Proxima Centauri was indeed moving. With a regular period of 11.2 days, the star would vary between approaching Earth at a speed of 5 km an hour (3.1 mph), and then receding from Earth at the same speed.

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

This was certainly an exciting result, as it indicated a change in the star’s radial velocity that was consistent with the existence of a planet. Further analysis showed that the planet had a mass at least 1.3 times that of Earth, and that it orbited the star at a distance of about 7 million km (4.35 million mi) – only 5% of the Earth’s distance from the Sun.

The discovery of the planet was made possible by the La Silla’s regular observation of the star, which took place star  between mid-January and April of 2016, using the 3.6-meter telescope‘s HARPS spectrograph. Other telescopes around the world conducted simultaneous observation in order to confirm the results.

One such observatory was the San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations Observatory in Chile, which relied on its ASH2 telescope to monitor the changing brightness of the star during the campaign. This was essential, as red dwarfs like Proxima Centauri are active stars, and can vary in ways that would mimic the presence of the planet.

Guillem Anglada-Escudé described the excitement of the past few months in an ESO press release:

“I kept checking the consistency of the signal every single day during the 60 nights of the Pale Red Dot campaign. The first 10 were promising, the first 20 were consistent with expectations, and at 30 days the result was pretty much definitive, so we started drafting the paper!”

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.
Infographic comparing the orbit of the planet around Proxima Centauri (Proxima b) with the same region of the Solar System. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/G. Coleman

Two separate papers discuss the habitability of Proxima b and its climate, both of which will be appearing soon on the Institute of Space Sciences (ICE) website. These papers describe the research team’s findings and outline their conclusions on how the existence of liquid water cannot be ruled out, and discuss where it is likely to be distributed.

Though there has been plenty of excitement thanks to words like “Earth-like”, “habitable zone”, and “liquid water” being thrown around, some clarifications need to be made. For instance, Proxima b’s rotation, the strong radiation it receives from its star, and its formation history mean that its climate is sure to be very different from Earth’s.

For instance, as is indicated in the two papers, Proxima b is not likely to have seasons, and water may only be present in the sunniest regions of the planet. Where those sunny regions are located depends entirely on the planet’s rotation. If, for example, it has a synchronous rotation with its star, water will only be present on the sun-facing side. If it has a 3:2 resoncance rotation, then water is likely to exist only in the planet’s tropical belt.

In any case, the discovery of this planet will open the door to further observations, using both existing instruments and the next-generation of space telescopes. And as Anglada-Escudé states, Proxima Centauri is also likely to become the focal point in the search for extra-terrestrial life in the coming years.

This picture combines a view of the southern skies over the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile with images of the stars Proxima Centauri (lower-right) and the double star Alpha Centauri AB (lower-left) from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Proxima Centauri is the closest star to the Solar System and is orbited by the planet Proxima b, which was discovered using the HARPS instrument on the ESO 3.6-metre telescope.
A view of the southern skies over the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile, showing the location of Proxima Centauri in the sky. Credit: Y. Beletsky (LCO)/ESO/ESA/NASA/M. Zamani

“Many exoplanets have been found and many more will be found, but searching for the closest potential Earth-analogue and succeeding has been the experience of a lifetime for all of us,” he said. “Many people’s stories and efforts have converged on this discovery. The result is also a tribute to all of them. The search for life on Proxima b comes next…”

As we noted in a previous article on the subject, Project Starshot is currently developing a nanocraft that will use a laser-driven sail to make the journey to Alpha Centauri in 20 years time. But a mission to Proxima Centuari would take even less time (19.45 years at the same speed), and could study this newly-found exoplanet up-close.

One can only hope they are planning on altering their destination to take advantage of this discovery. And one can only imagine what they might find if and when they get to Proxima b!

A paper describing this milestone finding will be published in the journal Nature on August 25th, 2016, titled “A terrestrial planet candidate in a temperate orbit around Proxima Centauri“.

Further Reading: ESO

ESO Announcement To Address Reports Of Proxima Centauri Exoplanet

For years, exoplanet hunters have been busy searching for planets that are similar to Earth. And when earlier this month, an unnamed source indicated that the European Southern Observatory (ESO) had done just that – i.e. spotted a terrestrial planet orbiting within the star’s habitable zone – the response was predictably intense.

The unnamed source also indicated that the ESO would be confirming this news by the end of August. At the time, the ESO offered no comment. But on the morning of Monday, August 22nd, the ESO broke its silence and announced that it will be holding a press conference this Wednesday, August 24th.

No mention was made as to the subject of the press conference or who would be in attendance. However, it is safe to assume at this point that it’s main purpose will be to address the burning question that’s on everyone’s mind: is there an Earth-analog planet orbiting the nearest star to our own?

Artist’s impression of a sunset seen from the surface of an Earth-like exoplanet. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada
Artist’s impression of a sunset seen from the surface of an Earth-like exoplanet. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

For years, the ESO has been studying Proxima Centauri using the La Silla Observatory’s High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS). It was this same observatory that reported the discovery of a planet around Alpha Centauri B back in 2012 – which was the “closest planet to Earth” at the time – which has since been cast into doubt.

Relying on a technique known as the Radial Velocity (or Doppler) Method, they have been monitoring this star for signs of movement. Essentially, as planets orbit a star, they exert a gravitational influence of their own which causes the star to move in a small orbit around the system’s center of mass.

Ordinarily, a star would require multiple exoplanets, or a planet of significant size (i.e. a Super-Jupiter) in order for the signs to be visible. In the case of terrestrial planets, which are much smaller than gas giants, the effect on a star’s orbit would be rather negligible. But given that Proxima Centauri is the closest star system to Earth – at a distance of 4.25 light years – the odds of discerning its radial velocity are significantly better.

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 17th, 2012. Credit: ESO

According to the source cited by the German weekly Der Speigel, which was the first to report the story, the unconfirmed exoplanet is not only believed to be “Earth-like” (in the sense that it is a rocky body) but also orbits within it’s stars habitable zone (i.e. “Goldilocks Zone”).

Because of this, it would be possible for this planet to have liquid water on its surface, and an atmosphere capable of supporting life. However, we won’t know any of this for certain until we can direct the next-generation of telescopes – like the James Webb Space Telescope or Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) – to study it more thoroughly.

This is certainly an exciting development, as confirmation will mean that there is planet similar to Earth that is within our reach. Given time and the development of more advanced propulsion systems, we might even be able to mount a mission there to study it up close!

The press conference will start at 1 p.m. Central European Time (CET) – 1 p.m. EDT/10 a.m. PDT. And you bet that we will be reporting on the results shortly thereafter! Stay tuned!

Further Reading: Seeker

Earth-Like Planet Around Proxima Centauri Discovered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading: Der Speigel

Weekly Space Hangout – Jan. 29, 2016: Largest Solar System, Future Missions, and Remembering Our Lost Astronauts

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Guests:
Carolyn Collins Petersen (thespacewriter.com / space.about.com / @spacewriter )
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg )
Kimberly Cartier (@AstroKimCartier )
Dave Dickinson (www.astroguyz.com / @astroguyz)
Jolene Creighton (fromquarkstoquasars.com / @futurism)
Paul Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)

Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – Jan. 29, 2016: Largest Solar System, Future Missions, and Remembering Our Lost Astronauts”