Planet DISCOVERY: A ‘Super-Earth’ may be orbiting neighbour star Proxima Centauri

Astrobiology – the search for alien life beyond Earth – was for decades the preserve of science fiction and pseudo science. But the area of inquiry has become a serious field of research, after the discovery of thousands of planets outside of our solar system. And the discovery of another alien world potentially orbiting our next nearest star is exciting proponents of this pioneering space research.

The proposed new planet joins another one known to be orbiting the nearest star to our sun, a small red dwarf called Proxima Centauri.

Dr Mario Damasso of Italy’s Observatory of Turin announced: “We are pleased to show you, for the first time, what is for us a new candidate planet around Proxima that we call Proxima c.

“It is only a candidate. This is very important to underline.”

If the planet is there, approximately 4.24 light-years away, it is at least six times more massive than Earth, making it a Super-Earth.

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However, because the planet takes 1,936 days to loop once around its star, Proxima c’s average surface temperature is far too cold for liquid water to flow on the surface.

Scientists three years ago revealed the first known world orbiting Proxima Centauri — a planet approximately 1.3 times larger than Earth that is thought to be warm enough for Earth-like life to thrive on its surface.

That planet, dubbed Proxima Centauri b, was identified by studying how its gravity tugs on Proxima Centauri and causes the star to wobble.

Recently, Dr Damasso and Dr Fabio Del Sordo of the University of Crete revisit the 2016 data used to spot Proxima b.

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They processed it somewhat differently, removed the signals from Proxima b and intrinsic stellar activity, and added 61 additional measurements from Chile’s La Silla Observatory.

In total, they then had approximately 17 years’ worth of data on Proxima Centauri’s wiggles and wobbles.

And the researchers spotted a signal that could potentially be another planet in orbit around Proxima Centauri.

If it’s there – the results still require confirmation – Proxima c takes a little more than five Earth-years to travel once around its star, orbiting at a distance 1.5 times farther than Earth is from the sun.

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Dr Del Sordo said “This detection is very challenging.

“We asked ourselves many times if this is a real planet.

“But what is sure is that even if this planet is a castle in the air, we should keep working to put even stronger foundations under it.”

Data will continue to be collecting on Proxima Centauri and information from the European Space Agency’s Gaia spacecraft will be used to further study the star’s motion.

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