Science

Scientists confirm an 'Earth' around nearest star

Scientists confirm an 'Earth' around nearest star”

"Confirming the existence of Proxima b was an important task, and it's one of the most interesting planets known in the solar neighborhood", Alejandro Suarez Mascareño, the study's lead author, said in a statement.

Determining the mass of such a distant planet as Poxima b with such precision is "completely unheard of", enthused 2019 Nobel Prizer victor Michel Mayor, a Swiss astrophysicist and professor emeritus at the University of Geneva's Department of Astronomy.

This breakthrough has been possible thanks to radial velocity measurements of unprecedented precision using ESPRESSO, the Swiss-manufactured spectrograph – the most accurate now in operation – which is installed on the Very Large Telescope in Chile.

"We're really pleased that ESPRESSO can produce even better measurements, and it's gratifying and just reward for the teamwork lasting almost 10 years", adds Francesco Pepe, who co-authored the research, entitled "Revisiting Proxima with ESPRESSO". The planetary object is at a distance of around 4.2 light-years from the Sun and is now orbiting around Proxima Centauri.

Proxima b is virtually the same size as Earth, being just 1.17 times the size of our planet and it orbits in Proxima Centauri's in its solar system's "goldilocks zone" meaning it is not too far, or too close to its host star - making the conditions for life just right. By measuring the changes in the radial velocity of Proxima Centauri with an accuracy of 30 cm/s, the instrument showed that the mass of the exoplanet is 1.17 times that of the Earth, rather than the previous estimate of 1.3 Earths.

The discovery of Proxima b is definitely a new milestone in the hunt for new exoplanets that can support life like Earth.

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According to the researchers' observations, Proxima b orbits its host star in 11.2 days. Proxima b is a little more massive than the Earth and orbits in the habitable zone around Proxima Centauri, where the temperature is suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface.

"We were already very happy with the performance of HARPS, which has been responsible for discovering hundreds of exoplanets over the last 17 years", said Francesco Pepe, a professor in the Astronomy Department in UNIGE's Faculty of Science in a statement. We hope to answer all these questions with the help of instruments such as the RISTRETTO spectrometer we will produce specifically to detect the light emitted by Proxima b and the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) that the European Southern Observatory (ESO) will build in Chile.

But there's some bad news: Proxima Centauri tends to bombard any planets in its vicinity with a ferocious amount of X-rays - Proxima b receives about 400 times the amount as Earth receives from its Sun. “And if this atmosphere exists, does it contain the chemical elements that promote the development of life (oxygen, for example)?

Surprise: is there a second planet? Additionally, researchers in their study also found evidence of a second signal in the data, apart from Proxima b which could be of planetary origin. "It would then be the smallest planet ever measured using the radial velocity method". Back in 2016, HARPS (High Accuracy Velocity Planet Searcher) spectrograph discovered this planet.

If we take a look at how difficult it is for life to emerge even on Earth, we could guess that it would be very hard to find traces of any organism on any planet that you would magically extract from a cosmic bowl.



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