Astronomers Think They Just Discovered Another Earth

Photo: ESA/Hubble/NASA.
Astronomers have long combed the galaxy with telescopes and other instruments to answer the age old question, "Are we alone in the universe?" While we seem to be alone in our solar system, now researchers have found a place where life really could exist — and it's not that far away. A planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, one of the nearest stars to Earth, could be another Earth, the scientific journal Nature reports.

In recent years, NASA has discovered a number of possible exoplanets and Earth-like planets in the cosmos, but this one is very exciting. Why? Because, astronomers say, it is far closer and easier to reach. It's "only" 4.2 lightyears away (25 trillion miles), as the New York Times reported.

The astronomers, who published their findings in Nature, emphasize that thus far much of their understanding of the planet, nicknamed Proxima b, remains speculative. But, it could be more similar to our climate and ecosystem than any other planet we've discovered, which means that it could hypothetically support life. It's far closer to its star than we are (five million miles compared to 93 million miles), but its star is very different, and much weaker, than our sun. The planet could be Venus-like, volcanic and toxic, or even cold and dry like Mars. It's very possible it could have water.

Confirmation of the planet's existence has taken over 18 years of research, The New York Times reported, as astronomers had to rule out that it wasn't just another star. No photographs have been captured of it yet, as the planet can't be seen through its star's glare (and we can't even see Proxima Centauri from Earth with the naked eye). But from what scientists have observed, Proxima b is 1.3 times larger than Earth, and orbits its sun once every 11 days.

It's conceivable that we could send robotic probes to explore this planet in the coming decades. Then we'll learn a lot more about our potentially life-supporting distant neighbor.

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