An artist’s impression of Proxima b orbiting Proxima Centauri—the closest star to our sun. Image credit ESO/M. Kornmesser.
For years, people have wondered whether there’s life on other planets. Scientists may now be closer than ever to answering that question.
Using powerful telescopes, a team of astronomers (people who study planets and other objects in space) in South America discovered a new planet, called Proxima b. It orbits, or circles, a star named Proxima Centauri, the same way Earth orbits the sun. Proxima Centauri is the closest star to our solar system.
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Scientists believe the new planet has a rocky surface and is similar in size to Earth. More important, they’ve determined that the distance between Proxima b and its sun gives the planet a similar temperature to Earth’s. This means it could have liquid water. The presence of water on a planet makes it possible for life to exist there. Scientists refer to planets like Proxima b as “Goldilocks planets” because they’re not too hot or too cold, but just right to possibly support life.
Astronomers have found other Goldilocks planets in the past, but none are as close to Earth as Proxima b. Still, the new planet is 4.2 light-years (the distance that light travels in a year) from Earth—that’s about 25 trillion miles away.
Despite the long distance, astronomers hope to one day get a much better look at our newfound neighbor. But they’ll need to wait until more-advanced telescopes are developed. They may also send robotic spacecraft to investigate the planet.
Paul Butler is an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C. He was part of the team that discovered Proxima b. He says he can’t wait to learn more about the mysterious planet.