After a week of controversy and embargo-breaking, the actual science behind the detection of Proxima Centauri b is finally here (published in Nature). And it, honestly, is a breathtaking discovery. A terrestrial planet around the closest star to our sun. It proves what Kepler showed: Earth-like planets really are everywhere, including around the star next door. But should we believe it? And is it all that it is hyped up to be?
As you can probably tell from the name, Proxima is the closest star to Earth. Located only 4 lightyears away in the Alpha Centauri system, it is a tiny red speck of light, only visible in a telescope. The reason for it’s lackluster brightness is that the star itself is dimunative. Only 12% of the size of the Sun, it is also 100 million times fainter. Although that may sound bizarre, M-dwarfs like it are the most common type of star in our galaxy.
Many people have hunted for planets around Proxima before. These usually involve monitoring the star’s radial velocity, it’s to-and-fro speed, and searching for the tell-tale tug of a gravitationally bound exoplanet. But until 2016, there had been no luck. That’s when the Pale Red Dot team decided to throw everything they could at the star to try to do what others had not.
Using the HARPS instrument on La Silla (which I am currently sat only 50m from), they took observations nearly every night for 3 months. And, as we found out yesterday, that kitchen-sink technique paid off. They found a 1.5m/s (that’s brisk walking pace) with an 11.2 day signal. And it had a 99.9999% chance of being real. And they found the same signal, hidden just below detectability in the past data too.
Activity and detection:
When the rumours were flying, I urged caution on this potential discovery. One of the reasons being that Proxima is not a quiet sun-like star. It is instead a turbulent M-dwarf. That manifests itself in large star-spots, strong stellar flares and varying shapes in the spectral lines (the bar-code like lines we observe in the colours of the star). All of these cause confusion in the radial velocities, and there have been a few planets (some of which were discovered by this very team) which are now assumed to be simply variability.
But, they have convinced me. One way they have done this is with simultaneous photometry. That means not just observing the star with a spectrograph, but also simultaneously measuring its brightness with an imaging telescope. This photometry also gives a view of the activity of the star, but without any of the doppler signal from the planet. And what the team see is that the photometry (the trends in brightness) matches up perfectly with the activity that is suggested by certain features in the spectra. And that this signal is completely different to that from the planet.
So, I have to say it: it seems unlikely that the strong signal comes from the star itself, and much more likely that we are indeed seeing the gravitational tug of an orbiting planet.
Firstly, we only have a minimum mass for the planet. What this means is that, it could not be less than 1.3Me, but it certainly could be more. That is because the signal from a small planet with its orbit observed edge-on has the same signal as a larger planet observed more obliquely (pole-on). So do not be surprised if it turns out to be larger than this first measurement
M-dwarfs and habitability:
Another caveat is that the planet probably isn’t habitable. I know that flies in the face of every news headline, but hear me out. Firstly, as I’ve said before, Proxima Centauri throws out an abundance of flares. These are so numerous and so strong that they are clearly seen four times in the ~80 nights of photometry. With a planet only 0.05AU away (1/20th the distance of Earth), these flares would have the potential to do damage to any organic molecules on the surface. The paper itself suggests the sterilising X-ray flux could be 400 times that experienced by Earth; and are likely to have been much higher in the past.
Another problem is that any body that close to another, larger body is likely to be tidally locked. Just look at the moon. This proves problematic for habitability. The large temperature gradient from day to night a tidally locked planet sucks the atmosphere (with supersonic winds) to the cold side of the planet. There, atmosphere can gets frozen and be lost. You can break this cycle, but that involves having a very thick (and equally un-earthlike) atmosphere.
One interesting remark was that there seems to be another signal in the data from a more massive outer planet. Now, this signal might be closer to the rotational (and therefore activity) cycle of the star so could more easily be a false positive. But it would not be surprising if, like our own terrestrial planet, it had bigger siblings lurking slightly further out.
As with any exoplanet result, it seems like everything besides a few key details is speculation ( I have even seen some press speculating on the number of continents proxima has!). In fact, details such as its true mass aren’t completely tied down just yet. And even 1.3Me planets can still be un-earthlike; look at KOI-314c for example.
But, unlike most of the ‘earthlike’ planets we have found, there’s a pretty good chance we could actually answer these questions directly. And I don’t just mean with giant telescopes (although those would obviously work too) – I mean actual in situ observations. Crossing 4 lightyears of space currently no more than a pipe-dream, but it’s not inconceivable to think that, within our lifetimes, a probe might set off to see just how earthlike these exoplanets really are. And there’s no question where it will be going first; towards a Pale Red Dot…