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There may be many more habitable planets within 4.22 light years of Earth

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The confirmation of a third planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our Sun, indicates that there will surely be more worlds in the habitable zone just 4.22 light years from Earth.

An international team of astronomers has confirmed the existence of a new planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System, as reported in an article published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

It is the third planet detected in this star and one of the lowest mass ever discovered, with barely a quarter of the mass of the Earth. Its verification has been achieved using the Very Large Telescope of the European Southern Observatory (ESO’s VLT), in Chile.

Proxima Centauri is the closest star to the Sun, located 4.22 light-years away from Earth. The new discovered planet, next drevolves around this star, at a distance of about four million kilometers, less than a tenth of the distance between Mercury and the Sun, and takes only five days to complete one orbit.

Proxima d accompanies two planets already known in the system: Proxima b, with a mass similar to Earth, which orbits the star once every 11 days and is in the habitable zone; and the Proxima c candidate, which is in a 5-year orbit around the star.

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first signs

Proxima b was discovered in 2016 and confirmed in 2020, when scientists found the first evidence of a planet in a five-day orbit that they named Proxima d.

As the signal from this planet was very weak, the team launched a new observation campaign to confirm that it was indeed a planet, which is the result obtained now.

“The confirmation of such a weak signal was a challenge, but also an opportunity that we could not miss,” says Alejandro Suárez Mascareño, IAC scientist and first author of the work in which the first evidence of the new planet was detected.

lower mass

With just a quarter of the mass of Earth, Proxima d is one of the lowest-mass exoplanets detected, surpassing another recently characterized planet, in the L 98-59 system, located 34.6 light-years away.

The effect of the newly discovered planet on its star is so small that the speed of Proxima Centauri varies only about 40 centimeters per second.

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According to Jorge Lillo-Box, from the CAB, CSIC-INTA and co-author of the work, “due to its small size, the detection of Proxima d has been a scientific and technological challenge, since the signals from the three planets are mixed with the signal of stellar activity.

there may be more planets

Finally, María Rosa Zapatero Osorio, also co-author of the study and researcher at the CAB, CSIC-INTA, assures that “Proxima contains a very rich planetary system, with at least two rocky planets, one of them in the habitable zone. Surely it will have many more, but more observation campaigns will be necessary to be able to recognize them”.

The search for other worlds has a clear successor in ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), currently under construction in the Atacama Desert.

Reference

A candidate short-period sub-Earth orbiting Proxima Centauri. JP Faria et al. A&A, Volume 658, February 2022. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1051/0004-6361/202142337

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