Our Nearest Neighbour

Invisible to the naked eye, and sitting just over four light years from the Sun, sits a small, comparatively cool and seemingly insignificant star. Except this type of star is by far the most common in the galaxy and most likely the universe. More importantly, Proxima Centauri might yet host the most important find of the century.

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Proxima is a red dwarf star. These stars are low-mass objects and small in size too. As a result, they are cool in comparison to our Sun, however their lifespan is thought to be trillions of years long, dwarfing (if you’ll pardon the pun) even the billions of years lifespan of the Sun. Scientists have expressed an interest in them because of their frequency – and people have been curious to know if such stars could support planets. The European Southern Observatory announced the discovery of a planet around Proxima on 24th August – and this happens to be a rocky world, possibly 1.3 earth-masses in mass, that orbits within the habitable zone of the star.

Needless to say, this is a landmark finding. Liquid water might exist on the surface of this world, and it’s similar in mass to earth. Might it be able to support life? It’s far too early to know if there’s an atmosphere of any sort, and the chances are the planet is tidally locked (that is, the same ‘face’ of the planet always faces the star, being one side will be baked whilst the other side is cold), so the odds of finding intelligent life there are remote – but might some form of life be able to survive there? Well, the extremophiles that exist right here on earth would suggest it’s possible.

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