Dust Belts Around Nearby Star Proxima Centauri Suggest it Has More Planets

Sunday, 05 November 2017 - 12:40PM
Space
Astronomy
Sunday, 05 November 2017 - 12:40PM
Dust Belts Around Nearby Star Proxima Centauri Suggest it Has More Planets
ESO/M. Kornmesser
Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf star that's mostly well known for being the closest star to our own Sun, at a cosmic spitting distance of only 4.24 lightyears away. But despite being our neighbor, we still don't know a great deal about it, having only discovered last year that the Proxima Centauri system has an orbiting Earth-like planet, called Proxima b. 

And it might be just one planet out of many. Because now, the ALMA Observatory (short for Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) located in Chile has picked up emissions from a large dust belt surrounding the star, with evidence that there's a larger, fainter one even further out in its solar system. 

What makes this immediately significant is that the dust belt(s) is thought to be leftover materials from failed planets, when the system was first created 4.5 billion years ago.



But what's even more significant is what the dust implies, because if there's a collection of planet ingredients that large sitting around the star, it's evidence that Proxima Centauri might have several more planets that we haven't discovered yet. Our own solar system has similar asteroid belts, after all - the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, as well as the Kuiper Belt in our solar system's outer edges, were created by similar means.

As the lead author of a study on the discovery, Guillem Anglada of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía said the following in a press release:

Opening quote
"The dust around Proxima is important because, following the discovery of the terrestrial planet Proxima b, it's the first indication of the presence of an elaborate planetary system, and not just a single planet, around the star closest to our Sun."
Closing quote


The confirmed dust bands are more than a little freezing at around -382 degrees Fahrenheit (again, about as cold as our Kuiper Belt), and they're close to Proxima Centauri, at 1-4 times the distance between the Sun and the Earth. As for the fainter belt, that's expected to be significantly colder and around ten times further away from Proxima Centauri.

It's unknown whether or not these mystery planets would be like Proxima b, which is very similar to Earth. It's a rocky planet that's about the same size as Earth, and it's close enough to the cold dwarf star to have Earth-like temperatures, with the only caveat being the intense amount of solar radiation it receives. If we ever wanted to visit, we'd have to find a workaround for that last part.

But if our closest neighboring solar system actually does have more planets than just little Proxima b, it would make the system a much bigger point of interest. When the time comes where we have the technology to reliably send probes or even manned missions beyond our own solar system, Proxima Centauri would surely be one of the first trips we make.
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