Well, not really in a “galaxy far, far away,” but it was just announced that a planet orbiting our neighboring star could, very well, support life. Named Proxima b, the planet is about the same size as Earth and is in the “temperate” zone—compatible with the presence of liquid water which holds the power to sustain life.
Joining the roster of planets which could support life, Proxima b is by far the nearest of them all. Ticking in from only four lightyears away, this planet and its star is just a “stone’s throw away” from our own solar system. But who are we kidding? With the current state of our space-faring vehicles, it would take generations and generations for us to have at least the faintest actual view of the planet.
Proxima b was a work of 16 years by the team led by Guillem Anglada-Escude, an astronomer at Queen Mary University London. The first clues of its existence were the shifts in the light spectrum of Proxima Centauri, the star orbited by Proxima b, indicating the gravitational pull of a planet. Through various calculations from the gathered data, it has been inferred that the newly-discovered planet has a mass 1.3 times larger than that of Earth and orbits about 7 million kilometers from its star. To put things into perspective, Earth orbits 149 million kilometers from the Sun.
You may wonder how a planet so close to its star could possibly support life. This is due to the fact that the star Proxima Centauri burns a lot less than our own star: the Sun. This means that the planet could hold water that is neither too hot that it becomes gas, nor too cold that it becomes solid. However, scientists are still in the dark if Proxima b has an atmosphere that could support life, or if it has an atmosphere at all. The atmosphere is just as important a factor as the water content of the planet, since it is the atmosphere that is partially responsible in protecting the planet’s surface from radiation and space debris.
Two interesting facts about Proxima b include the evidence that it is “tidally locked,” meaning it has permanent dark and light sides (Sith and Jedi confirmed). In the near future, it could also be the first planet outside our own solar system to be visited by man-made objects, or even members of our own species.
With the onset of increasing scientific progress, it won’t be surprising to find more and more planets like these. Let’s not have our hopes too high, though, but let us keep in the scientific optimism.