The European Southern Observatory has been searching for planets orbiting Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to our solar system for years. It has been checking observations since January this year in the hope of confirming their belief that they had found a pale red dot to match our pale blue dot.
The confirmation was made on 24 August confirming not only that Proxima b was a planet but the incredible news that it was a candidate for sustaining life, because conditions allowed for liquid water to exist on the planet.
It is a little larger than Earth but is much closer to its sun and completes a “year” in just 11 days. While the size and temperature of the planet may allow humans to survive, the star X-rays may rule it. Another implication of its distance from its sun is that it, like the moon will always have the same side facing the sun.
Planets have been found orbiting much further away, and so finding one that appears habitable and just happens to be at the next closest star would be great news. However 4,2 light years despite being close in space terms, represents something humans have yet to achieve.
There are 9 trillion kilometres in a light year. When Voyager took a photo of Earth in 1990, all that could be seen was a pale blue dot (hence pale red dot). Voyager had been travelling for 13 years already then. It has now left our solar system and is one of the fastest travelling man made objects.
How long would it take to get to Proxima Centauri?
The infographic below indicates that while we are so very close in space terms, our potential Earth 2.0 is as far away as humanity has had a history on Earth.
Despite being so close, we will need significant improvements to enable interstellar travel. At least now we have a direction to aim at.
A South African connection to the discovery is that Proxima Centauri, when discovered in 1915 by Robert Innes, was first observed using the telescope in Observatory, Cape Town.