Villanova Astronomers Help In Finding A New Planet

Two Villanova University astronomers are part of an international team that has been examining the possible habitability of Proxima b, a newly discovered “Earth-size” planet orbiting in the liquid water habitable zone of the red dwarf star—Proxima Centauri. Proxima Centauri is the closest star to the Sun, approximately 4.25 light years out.  The announcement of the discovery of the exoplanet, the closest in proximity to the Earth to date, was made on August 24 by the European Southern Observatory (ESO).


The initial findings of Edward F. Guinan, PhD, Villanova Professor of Astrophysics & Planetary Science, Scott G. Engle, PhD, Research Assistant Professor of Astrophysics & Planetary Science at Villanova, made the claim that the planet could have water and possibly oceans that could make it habitable and suitable for life. Evidence indicates that the planet may have been near the boiling point of water in their past history but enough time has passed so that it may be cool enough for water to exist on its surface. They have dubbed the new planet “Proxima b.”


Dr. Guinan said of the possibility, “Depending on how much the host star’s early strong magnetic-induced X-ray, Ultraviolet and plasma fluxes affected the planet and its original water content, the planet now could be like Mars, Venus or an ocean planet like the Earth. These possibilities have not been ruled in or ruled out.” Dr. Guinan concluded that” It’s an open question until additional observations are made to distinguish among these outcomes.”


Even if the planet is habitable, it would be a long trip. Though Proxima Centauri is the closest star to our own solar system, it is about 25 trillion miles away, a distance that would require half a century to travel, given current propulsion technology. That has not stopped people in the astronomy world from aiming higher.


In April, many months before the press release detailing the planet’s discovery, the Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner announced he was engineering a $100 million endeavor to develop an unmanned, light-propelled “nanocraft” that could reach Proxima Centauri in 20 years. Milner said of the endeavor “It’s not science fiction, it’s accessible.”

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