One of the world’s largest telescopes is about to get a big upgrade so it can search for potentially habitable worlds in the star system closest to Earth.
The nonprofit organization Breakthrough Initiatives will fund upgrades to the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, so that it can conduct a search for more habitable worlds in the Alpha Centauri star system, which is extremely close to Earth. Surveys of the star system could begin as soon as 2019.
VLT hopes to find a world similar to the “second Earth” found by European astronomers in August. Astronomers found the planet by detecting a slight “wobble” of gravity tugging on the star Proxima Centauri, which is closer to Earth than Alpha Centauri. This indirect method of detection means scientists don’t currently know if the planet, called “Proxima b,” has an atmosphere or possesses a magnetosphere, but there’s already a lot speculation about the possibility of life on the planet.
Proxima b is considered a good candidate for supporting life as initial reports suggested it has a rocky surface, is close in size to Earth and circles its star closely enough to be relatively warm. Since Proxima Centauri is seven times smaller than the sun, the planet is likely in the “Goldilocks Zone,” the region around a star that has just the right conditions to find liquid water on a planet’s surface.
Research suggests that if life does exist on Proxima b, it would be subject to frequent planet-wide extinction-level events due to its close proximity to its star. If life did develop on Proxima b, the harsh conditions may have permanently locked it into a relatively primitive microbial form, NASA scientists previously told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
The planet is extremely close to its star, meaning a year there only lasts 11.2 days, and the star it orbits is seven times smaller than the sun because of Proxima Centauri. “Proxima b” probably has an average surface temperature of around minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and liquid water could exist in places on the planet.
Although Proximba b is by far the closest potentially habitable exoplanet to our solar system, it would still take more than 1,000 years to arrive using today’s best rocketry, according to Universe Today. If there were technologically-advanced aliens living on Proxima b, it would take 4.6 years for any radio signals sent from Earth to reach them.
Breakthrough Initiatives hopes to soon start the first interstellar voyage in history to Alpha Centauri using a lightsail and very small spacecraft that would rely on lasers to accelerate it to 20 percent the speed of light. This craft could reach Alpha Centauri in just 20 years and could be launched relatively soon.
NASA announced in May that the Kepler Space Telescope found and verified 1,284 new exoplanets, or planets outside our solar system. Roughly 550 of the new exoplanets could be rocky planets like Earth based on their size. Nine of these exoplanets orbit in their stars’ “Goldilocks Zones,” and are therefore potentially habitable.
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