While exoplanet finds no longer create the buzz they generated a decade ago, a team of international astronomers just announced a very exciting find. Using the European Southern Observatory in Chile, astronomers confirmed the existence of a small, rocky planet in the habitable zone of Proxima Centauri.
Known as Proxima B, this planet orbits a red dwarf star that sits just 4.24 light-years away from Earth. While further research is needed to confirm the existence of the planet, data from a 54-day observation suggests the planet is 1.3 times Earth's mass and takes 11.2 days to orbit its star.
But while the planet is in the habitable zone around it star, it's located in a very different solar system than Earth. Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf, the star is only about 12 percent of the Sun in terms of mass, and has a magnetic field 600 times stronger. Most of its light is emitted in relatively cool infrared wavelenghts, it has giant flares and Proxima B continuously gets blasted by x-rays.
It doesn't look that great for life but what gets everyone excited is that this makes an ideal candidate for humanity's first leap into interstellar space. In fact, there's already a project, called Breakthrough Starshot, working on a proof-of-concept space probe capable of reaching Alpha Centauri and Proxima Centauri.
While it may seem like a fringe research effort, Breakthrough Starshot has an initial budget of $100 million and is supported by Russian venture capitalist Yuri Milner and cosmologist Stephen Hawking. Other notable board members include Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
If all goes to plan, Breakthrough Starshot hopes to launch its first mission about 20 years from now. After a 20-year journey to Proxima Centauri, the first data could reach Earth around 2060.
Even before today’s announcement, Breakthrough Starshot had announced its plan to send tiny spacecraft to the Alpha Centauri system later this century. But don’t expect any postcards from the new planet anytime soon: It will take more than 20 years for a spacecraft traveling at a monstrous 20 percent of the speed of light to reach Proxima Centauri, and another 4.24 years for any data to arrive back on Earth.