Proxima Centauri b orbits the star at a distance of roughly 0.05AU (7,500,000km; 4,600,000mi) with an orbital period of approximately 11.2 Earth days, and has an estimated mass of at least 1.3 times that of the Earth. Its habitability has not been established, though it is unlikely to be habitable since the planet is subject to stellar wind pressures of more than 2,000 times those experienced by Earth from the solar wind.
The discovery of the planet was announced in August 2016 by the European Southern Observatory. The planet was found using the radial velocity method, where periodic Doppler shifts of spectral lines of the host star suggest an orbiting object. From these readings, the radial velocity of the parent star relative to the Earth is varying with an amplitude of about 2 metres (7 feet) per second. According to Guillem Anglada‐Escudé, its proximity to Earth offers an opportunity for robotic exploration of the planet with the Starshot project or, at least, "in the coming centuries".
Without the inclination of its orbit known, the exact mass of Proxima Centauri b is unknown. If its orbit is nearly edge-on, it would have a mass of 7000127000000000000♠1.27+0.19 −0.17Earth masses. Statistically, there is a roughly 90% chance that the planet's mass is less than 7000810000000000000♠8.1+1.2 −1.0 Earth masses.
Mass, radius, and temperature
The apparent inclination of Proxima Centauri b's orbit has not yet been measured. The minimum mass of Proxima b is 1.27M⊕, which would be the actual mass if its orbit were seen edge on from the Earth. Once its orbital inclination is known, the mass will be calculable. More tilted orientations imply a higher mass, with 90% of possible orientations implying a mass below 3M⊕. The planet's exact radius is unknown. If it has a rocky composition and a density equal to that of the Earth, then its radius is at least 1.1R⊕. It could be larger if it has a lower density than the Earth, or a mass higher than the minimum mass. Like many super-Earth sized planets, Proxima Centauri b could have an icy composition like Neptune, with a thick layer of hydrogen on its surface; the likelihood that this is the case has been calculated to be greater than 10%. The planet has an equilibrium temperature of 234K (−39°C; −38°F).
The planet orbits an M-typered dwarf named Proxima Centauri. The star has a mass of 0.12M☉ and a radius of 0.14R☉. It has a surface temperature of 3042 K and is 4.85 billion years old. In comparison, the Sun is 4.6 billion years old and has a surface temperature of 5778 K. Proxima Centauri rotates once roughly every 83 days, and has a luminosity about 0.0015L☉. Like the two larger stars in the triple star system, Proxima Centauri is rich in metals compared to the Sun, something not normally found in low-mass stars like Proxima. Its metallicity ([Fe/H]) is 0.21, or 1.62 times the amount found in the Sun's atmosphere.[note 1]
Even though Proxima Centauri is the closest star to the Sun, it is not visible to the unaided eye from Earth because of its low luminosity (apparent magnitude of 11.13).
Proxima Centauri is a flare star. This means that it undergoes occasional dramatic increases in brightness and high-energy emissions because of magnetic activity that would create large solar storms. On March 18, 2016 a superflare was observed with an energy of 10^33.5 erg. The surface irradiation was estimated to be 100 times what is required to kill even UV-hardy microorganisms. Based on the rate of observed flares, total ozone depletion of an Earth-like atmosphere would occur within several hundred thousand years.
Proxima Centauri b orbits its host star every 11.186 days at a semi-major axis distance of approximately 0.05 astronomical units (7,000,000km; 5,000,000mi), which means the distance from the exoplanet to its host star is one-twentieth of the distance from the Earth to the Sun. Comparatively, Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun, has a semi-major axis distance of 0.39 AU. Proxima Centauri b receives about 65% of the amount of radiative flux from its host star that the Earth receives from the Sun - for comparison Mars receives about 43%. Most of the radiative flux from Proxima Centauri is in the infrared spectrum. In the visible spectrum, the exoplanet only receives 2.1% of the light Earth does - for comparison Jupiter receives 3.7% and Saturn 1.1%. So it would usually not get much brighter than twilight anywhere on Proxima Centauri b's surface. The maximum illumination of horizontal ground by twilight at sunrise is about 400 lux, while the illumination of Proxima b is about 2700 lux with quiet Proxima. Also, Proxima has flares. The brightest flare observed till 2016 had increased the visual brightness of Proxima about 8 times, which would be a large change from the previous level but, at about 17% the illumination of Earth, not very strong sunlight. [note 2] However, because of its tight orbit, Proxima Centauri b receives about 400 times more X-ray radiation than the Earth does. According to a yet-to-be-published article, a March 2016 flare reached about 68 times usual level, thus a little brighter than Sun.
The habitability of Proxima Centauri b has not been established, since the planet is subject to stellar wind pressures of more than 2,000 times those experienced by Earth from the solar wind. This radiation and the stellar winds would likely blow any atmosphere away, leaving the undersurface as the only potentially habitable location on that planet.
The exoplanet is orbiting within the habitable zone of Proxima Centauri, the region where, with the correct planetary conditions and atmospheric properties, liquid water may exist on the surface of the planet. The host star, with about an eighth of the mass of the Sun, has a habitable zone between ∼0.0423–0.0816 AU. In October 2016, researchers at France's CNRS research institute stated that there is a considerable chance of the planet harboring surface oceans and having a thin atmosphere. However, unless the planet transits in front of its star from the perspective of Earth, it is difficult to test these hypotheses.
Even though Proxima Centauri b is in the habitable zone, the planet's habitability has been questioned because of several potentially hazardous physical conditions. The exoplanet is close enough to its host star that it might be tidally locked. In this case, it is expected that any habitable areas would be confined to the border region between the two extreme sides, generally referred to as the terminator line, since it is only here that temperatures might be suitable for liquid water to exist. If the planet's orbital eccentricity is 0, this could result in synchronous rotation, with one hot side permanently facing towards the star, while the opposite side is in permanent darkness and freezing cold. However, Proxima Centauri b's orbital eccentricity is not known with certainty, only that it is below 0.35—potentially high enough for it to have a significant chance of being captured into a 3:2 spin-orbit resonance similar to that of Mercury, where Proxima b would rotate around its axis approximately every 7.5 Earth days with about 22.4 Earth days elapsing between one sunrise and the next. Resonances as high as 2:1 are also possible.
The European Southern Observatory estimates that if water and an atmosphere are present, a far more hospitable environment would result. Assuming an atmospheric N2 pressure of 1 bar and ∼0.01 bar of CO2, in a world including oceans with average temperatures similar to those on Earth, a wide equatorial belt (non-synchronous rotation), or the majority of the sunlit side (synchronous rotation), would be permanently ice-free. A large portion of the planet may be habitable if it has an atmosphere thick enough to transfer heat to the side facing away from the star. If it has an atmosphere, simulations suggest that the planet could have lost about as much as the amount of water that Earth has due to the early irradiation in the first 100–200 million years after the planet's formation. Liquid water may be present only in the sunniest regions of the planet's surface in pools either in an area in the hemisphere of the planet facing the star or—if the planet is in a 3:2 resonance rotation—diurnally in the equatorial belt. All in all, astrophysicists consider the ability of Proxima Centauri b to retain water from its formation as the most crucial point in evaluating the planet's present habitability. The planet may be within reach of telescopes and techniques that could reveal more about its composition and atmosphere, if it has any.
It is unlikely that Proxima Centauri b originally formed in its current orbit since disk models for small stars like Proxima Centauri would contain less than one M⊕ of matter within the central one AU at the time of their formation. This implies that either Proxima Centauri b was formed elsewhere in a manner still to be determined, or the current disc models for stellar formation are in need of revision.
Observational complications of the system still leave theoretical room for additional large planets to orbit Proxima Centauri. Calculations suggest that another super-Earth planet around the star cannot be ruled out and that its presence would not destabilize the orbit of Proxima Centauri b.
In 2017, Breakthrough Initiatives and the European Southern Observatory (ESO) entered a collaboration to enable and implement a search for habitable planets in the nearby star system, Alpha Centauri. The agreement involves Breakthrough Initiatives providing funding for an upgrade to the VISIR (VLT Imager and Spectrometer for mid-Infrared) instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile.
Velocity of Proxima Centauri towards and away from the Earth as measured with the HARPS spectrograph during the first three months of 2016. The red symbols with black error bars represent data points, and the blue curve is a fit of the data. The amplitude and period of the motion were used to estimate the planet's minimum mass.
An angular size comparison of how Proxima will appear in the sky seen from Proxima b, compared to how the Sun appears in our sky on Earth. Proxima is much smaller than the Sun, but Proxima b is very close to its star.
The relative sizes of a number of objects, including the three stars of the Alpha Centauri triple system and some other stars for which the angular sizes have also been measured. The Sun and Jupiter are also shown for comparison.
This chart shows the large southern constellation of Centaurus (the Centaur) and shows most of the stars visible with the naked eye on a clear dark night. The location of the closest star to the Solar System, Proxima Centauri, is marked with a red circle. Proxima Centauri is too faint to see with the unaided eye but can be found using a small telescope.
This picture combines a view of the southern skies over the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile with images of the stars Proxima Centauri (lower-right) and the double star Alpha Centauri AB (lower-left) from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Proxima Centauri is the closest star to the Solar System and is orbited by the planet Proxima b.
A numerical simulation of possible surface temperatures on Proxima b performed with the Laboratoire de Météorologie Dynamique's Planetary Global Climate Model. Here it is hypothesised that the planet possesses an Earth-like atmosphere and that it is covered by an ocean (the dashed line is the frontier between the liquid and icy oceanic surface). Two models were produced for the planet's rotation. Here the planet is in a so-called 3:2 resonance (a natural frequency for the orbit), and is seen as a distant observer would do during one full orbit.
A numerical simulation of possible surface temperatures. Here it is hypothesised that the planet possesses an Earth-like atmosphere and that it is covered by an ocean (the dashed line is the frontier between the liquid and icy oceanic surface). Here the planet is in synchronous rotation (like the Moon around the Earth), and is seen as a distant observer would do during one full orbit.
Alpha Centauri Bb – exoplanet once proposed to be orbiting the secondary star of the system, Alpha Centauri B, and was dubbed the closest exoplanet for a while before being disproven
↑ Taken from 100.21, which gives 1.62 times the metallicity of the Sun
↑ From knowing the absolute visual magnitude of Proxima Centauri, , and the absolute visual magnitude of the Sun, , the visual luminosity of Proxima Centauri can be calculated: = 4.92×10−5. Proxima Centauri b orbits at 0.0485 AU and so therefore, through use of the inverse-square law, the visual luminosity—intensity at the planet's distance—can be calculated:
1 2 3 4 Clery, Daniel (26 August 2016). "The exoplanet next door". Science News. Retrieved 28 August 2016. Researchers have already found hundreds of similarly sized planets, and many appear to be far better candidates for hosting life than the one around Proxima Centauri, called Proxima b.
↑ Christian, D. J.; Mathioudakis, M.; Bloomfield, D. S.; Dupuis, J.; Keenan, F. P. (2004). "A Detailed Study of Opacity in the Upper Atmosphere of Proxima Centauri". The Astrophysical Journal. 612 (2): 1140–1146. Bibcode:2004ApJ...612.1140C. doi:10.1086/422803.
↑ Howard, Ward S; Tilley, Matt A; Corbett, Hank; Youngblood, Allison; Parke Loyd, R. O; Ratzloff, Jeffrey K; Fors, Octavi; Daniel del Ser; Shkolnik, Evgenya L; Ziegler, Carl; Goeke, Erin E; Pietraallo, Aaron D; Haislip, Joshua; Law, Nicholas M (2018). "The First Naked-Eye Superflare Detected from Proxima Centauri". arXiv:1804.02001 [astro-ph.EP].