Proxima b: The New Planet in the Neighborhood

The other day I heard a story on the news—scientists have discovered a new planet. Not just any additional planet to add to the known planets of the universe, but one that could have life. Plus, it’s our next door neighbor—orbiting the next star over, Proxima Centauri.

Hubble image of Proxima Centari. Credit ESA/Hubble & NASA from http://www.spacetelescope.org/images/potw1343a/
Image from Hubble of our closest stellar neighbour: Proxima Centauri. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA from http://www.spacetelescope.org/images/potw1343a/

Yeah, I’ve heard of the discovery of other planets out there in the galaxy and know that some are in what is known as the Goldilocks (or habitable) zone—neither too close nor too far from a star so that liquid water can exist—but finding out that the star next door has a planet and it’s in the Goldilocks zone is pretty exciting! I mean, what if it turns out to be inhabited by aliens—what will we call them? Proximan b’s … or just Proximans … or perhaps Proximan bees???

View of star come into view from behind planet from space by Andrew-Art at https://pixabay.com/en/universe-planet-earth-sun-month-1408289/
Artist conception of planet and star by Andrew-Art at https://pixabay.com/en/universe-planet-earth-sun-month-1408289/

Although, any life that’s discovered may not necessarily be intelligent life, here’s a few other facts to contemplate as we decide what to call any possible extraterrestrials from Proxima b:

  • Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf star, so it’s not nearly as big as our Sun, giving off much less heat and 500 times less light. (According to BSU’s Brian Jackson, the average surface temperature on Proxima b could be about 41 degrees Fahrenheit because Proxima Centauri is so much cooler than the Sun.)
  • Proxima Centauri is part of a triple star system called Alpha Centauri.
  • Proxima Centauri is our closest neighbor—only a little over 4 light years away.
  • Proxima b was discovered by astronomers in Chile at the European Southern Observatory who took lots of readings and made observations of Proxima Centauri for several months. (The project is called Pale Red Dot and you can check it out for yourself on their website.)
  • Proxima b is thought to be bigger than the planet Earth; scientists estimate that it is about 1.3 times the size of Earth. … However,
  • Proxima b is a lot closer to it’s star—Proxima Centauri—than Earth is to the Sun, and …
  • It only takes about 11 Earth days for Proxima b to circle Proxima Centauri. (In other words, 1 year on Proxima b = 11 Earth days!)
  • It’s possible that Proxima b does not spin on its axis as it orbits Proxima Centauri (called tidal locking). This means that there would be a dark side of Proxima b just like there’s a dark side of the Moon!
  • Even though Proxima Centauri is only about 1/10th the size of our Sun, if you were standing on Proxima b, it would look a whole lot bigger than our Sun because Proxima b is so much closer to it than the Earth is to the Sun.
  • Proxima b might not have any atmosphere—and without an atmosphere, there would be nothing to protect the surface of the planet from stellar flares. … Plus, Proxima Centauri is known to release a lot of high-energy radiation (way more than our own Sun—and remember, Proxima b is way closer in distance to Proxima Centauri than we are to the Sun).
Centaurus Constellation depicted on a globe at the Skokloster Castle, photo in the public domain courtesy https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kentauren,_1602_-_Skoklosters_slott_-_102438.tif
Centaurus Constellation depicted on a globe at the Skokloster Castle, photo in the public domain courtesy https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kentauren,_1602_-_Skoklosters_slott_-_102438.tif

Those are a few facts about the newly discovered planet, and here’s a bit of the mythology associated with its’ place in the sky—for you may have realized that as Proxima Centauri is part of the Alpha Centauri System, Alpha Centauri itself is part of the Centaurus Constellation. In fact, Alpha Centauri makes up the hoof of the Centaur in the night sky. (And if the term Centauri seems familiar, maybe you’re remembering the Centauri race from the television series Babylon 5. Who knows, maybe life forms from Proxima b will also sport sideways mohawks?)

If you’re familiar with Greek mythology, you may have heard of Chiron, the wisest of the centaurs, known for his medicinal skills and teaching abilities, who is said to have been impaled on his foot by Hercules with an arrow poisoned with the blood of Hydra. The never-ending pain tortured the immortal Chiron until he volunteered to sacrifice himself in order to free Prometheus from his chains (and himself from his agony). Zeus then placed Chiron among the stars in what we view today in the night sky as the constellation Centaurus.

Photo of the Constellation Centaurus in the night sky by Ted Credner from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Constellation_Centaurus.jpg
Constellation Centaurus by Ted Credner from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Constellation_Centaurus.jpg

Hmm. So perhaps Centaur might be the most appropriate term for any alien life found on Proxima b … ?

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