Proxima Centauri has an Earth-like Planet?

It’s every creationist’s nightmare. PhysOrg reports: Earth-like planet around Proxima Centauri discovered. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us:

The hunt for exoplanets has been heating up in recent years. Since it began its mission in 2009, over four thousand exoplanet candidates have been discovered by the Kepler mission, several hundred of which have been confirmed to be “Earth-like” (i.e. terrestrial). And of these, some 216 planets have been shown to be both terrestrial and located within their parent star’s habitable zone (aka. “Goldilocks zone”).

Yes, we know. The last time we wrote about this was a month ago 104 More Planets & One Amazing System. Back to PhysOrg:

But in what may prove to be the most exciting find to date, the German weekly Der Spiegel announced recently that astronomers have discovered an Earth-like planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, just 4.25 light-years away. Yes, in what is an apparent trifecta, this newly-discovered exoplanet is Earth-like, orbits within it’s sun’s habitable zone, and is within our reach. But is this too good to be true?

We knew about that earlier report, but we’ve been waiting for something more authoritative. NASA still isn’t reporting anything on this. Let’s read on to see what PhysOrg says:

For over a century, astronomers have known about Proxima Centauri and believed that it is likely to be part of a trinary star system (along with Alpha Centauri A and B). Located just 0.237 ± 0.011 light years from the binary pair, this low-mass red dwarf star is also 0.12 light years (~7590 AUs) closer to Earth, making it the closest star system to our own.

We know it’s close. PhysOrg continues:

Knowing that there is a habitable planet that a mission from Earth could reach within our own lifetimes is nothing short of amazing! But of course, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic. Citing anonymous sources, the magazine [presumably Der Spiegel] stated:

[PhysOrg quotes the magazine:] “The still nameless planet is believed to be Earth-like and orbits at a distance to Proxima Centauri that could allow it to have liquid water on its surface —an important requirement for the emergence of life. Never before have scientists discovered a second Earth that is so close by.” In addition, they claim that the discovery was made by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) using the La Silla Observatory’s reflecting telescope.

Exciting, yes, but still nothing official. Here’s more:

The article goes on to state that the European Southern Observatory (ESO) will be announcing the finding at the end of August. But according to numerous sources, in response to a request for comment by AFP, ESO spokesman Richard Hook refused to confirm or deny the discovery of an exoplanet around Proxima Centauri. “We are not making any comment,” he is reported as saying.

So at the moment, we don’t know anything. Moving along:

What’s more, the folks at Project Starshot are certainly excited by the news. As part of Breakthrough Initiatives – a program founded by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner to search for intelligent life (with backing from Stephen Hawking and Mark Zuckerberg) – Starshot intends to send a laser-sail driven-nanocraft to Alpha Centauri in the coming years.

This craft, they claim, will be able to reach speeds of up to 20% the speed of light. At this speed, it will able to traverse the 4.37 light years that lie between Earth and Alpha Centauri in just 20 years. But with the possible discovery of an Earth-like planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, which lies even closer, they may want to rethink that objective.

We’re sure they will change their objective — if this discovery is confirmed. One last excerpt:

Naturally, there is the desire (especially amongst exoplanet enthusiasts) to interpret the ESO’s refusal to comment either way as a sort of tacit confirmation. And knowing that industry professionals are excited it about it does lend an air of legitimacy. But of course, assuming anything at this point would be premature. If the statements made by the unnamed source, and quoted by Der Speigel, are to be taken at face value, then confirmation (or denial) will be coming shortly. In the meantime, we’ll all just need to be patient.

Okay, we’ll be patient. If this is real, the response from creationists should be hilarious.

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47 responses to “Proxima Centauri has an Earth-like Planet?

  1. It will be exciting if true. My guess is that if they have seen something, they want to make sure to confirm it independently before going public.

    I think a mission arriving there within 20 years is much too optimistic. Very large new telescopes coming online over the next decade are much more likely to provide information on any planets orbiting in the Alpha Centauri system. Hopefully they will find one or more around Alpha Centauri A, which is a G2 star just like our sun, albeit a little bit brighter. That would truly be the ideal outcome.

    Yeah, creationists’ sphincters must be tightening over news like this.

  2. Reading elsewhere about this news I gather that, even if confirmed, the fact that the planet’s in the Goldilocks Zone needn’t mean that it’s habitable. Because Proxima Centauri is so small and dim, the Goldilocks Zone is pretty close to the star — the orbital period’s just a few days — so the planet’s almost certain to be tidally locked. Although a turbulent atmosphere might mean that the far side wasn’t permanently in conditions of complete frigidity, the nearness to the star might well mean the atmosphere is long gone. Tide-induced geothermal energy/volcanism might likewise warm the far side, but, in the absence of an atmosphere, this isn’t likely to be helpful; plus, if the facing side has no atmosphere, conditions there aren’t going to be much fun either.

    So there are a lot of questions to be answered before we get too excited. This may be just one of those little traps the Good Lord has set us to sort out the sheep from the goats, the goofballs from the rational.

    Where’s Our Norm to comment on this? I imagine he’d tell us there’s no evidence that Proxima Centauri exists. After all, this.

  3. Red dwarfs also tend to have large flares, which would probably be very dangerous to a closely orbiting planet. Still, it just adds more evidence that essentially everywhere we look, within the capabilities of our instruments, we find planets.

  4. Ceteris Paribus

    Just 4.25 light-years away? Damn. You suppose there is still time to deep-six all those embarrassing David Rives videos before our Proxima neighbors see them, and decide to vaporize our entire solar system?

  5. Richard Bond

    Orbits in a trinary star system are chaotic, so the orbit of this planet is might well not be sufficiently stable for long enough to allow life to evolve. The exception is if it is very close to its parent star, in which case, as realthog points out, it will probably be tidally locked.

  6. And, spelling out realthog’s point, earthlike size he did not mean earthlike in the sense of being able to support life. Consider the case of Venus

  7. Orbits in a trinary star system are chaotic, so the orbit of this planet is might well not be sufficiently stable for long enough to allow life to evolve.

    Proxima’s so very distant from the other two that I don’t think this’d be a problem.

  8. “If this is real, the response from creationists should be hilarious.”
    Be sure to share with us when you come across a hilarious response. ok?

    What’s truly hilarious is your imaginary crisis of faith we endure every time a planet is found. It seems your own Curmudgeonites are more level-headed than you are when it comes to “earthlike” planets.

    Tell you what Oh Sensuous One: find us an earthlike planet with an anomalously large moon, a self-generating magnetosphere and a multi-billion year near-circular orbit around a main sequence G-type star and then you’ve got my attention. Until then, stop seeing creationist nightmares where none exist. It only makes you look desperate.

  9. find us an earthlike planet with an anomalously large moon, a self-generating magnetosphere and a multi-billion year near-circular orbit around a main sequence G-type star and then you’ve got my attention

    (a) The magnetosphere seems inevitable — point me out a planet that doesn’t have one.

    (b) Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf, which means its lifetime is hugely longer than our sun’s. In terms of years, we’re talking not about multibillion but about multitrillion.

    (c) Why the insistence on a main sequence G-type star?

    (d) And why the insistence on an “anomalously large” moon? I know there have been hypotheses that the moon, through stirring up tides, facilitated the emergence of life, but they’re only hypotheses. After all, we’re looking for traces of life on Mars, which has no such moon.

  10. Eddie Janssen

    There are no other planets in the universe
    Oh, well, there are no other earthlike planets in the universe
    Oh, well, there are no other earthlike planets in the goldilock’s zone in the universe.
    Oh, well, there are no other earthlike planets in the goldilock’s zone with a stable orbit in the universe.
    Oh, well, there are no other earthlike planets in the goldilock’s zone with a stable orbit around a G-type star in the universe.
    Oh, well, ….

  11. (d) The reference must be to Gonzalez’s assertion that advanced life could not involve on a planet that lacked a large moon in order to stabilise its axis. I never could quite follow his reasoning on this one

  12. I never could quite follow his reasoning on this one

    Same here! I haven’t tripped over this particular line of “reasoning”; which Gonzalez made the claim?

  13. Paul Braterman says: “I never could quite follow his reasoning on this one”

    It’s simple. We’re the privileged planet. The designer — blessed be he! — created everything about it just for us. We have a relatively large moon. Therefore …

  14. Guilllermo Gonzalez in The Privileged Planet. IIRC, he said the wandering climate zones would prevent the formation of stable habitats. He also said that the near euality of anguylar size of sun and moon from earth shows special design, intended to encourage astronomy

  15. Many thanks for the info! I should have guessed it was the IDer.

    The idea that the moon helped the emergence of life because the tides sloshed the primordial seas around was quite mainstream a while back, although it seems to have faded over the years. It was this that I thought Kevin must be referring to.

    How does Gonzalez explain the stable axes of planets that lack “anomalously large” moons? Or does he just not do so?

  16. Read his book, if you think it worth the time. I didn’t

  17. KevinC proclaims: “your imaginary crisis of faith we endure every time a planet is found”
    Never visited Ol’ Hambo’s AIG site? Or do you say his tantrums are the product of SC’s admittedly rich imagination?

  18. And remember, even though Earth has been privileged to be compatible for life, life on Earth is so improbable that it had to take special intervention contrary to the laws of nature by Intelligent Design to create life on Earth.

  19. Some while ago I read for review Burger’s Perfect Planet, Clever Species, which comes to a similar conclusion about the rarity of intelligent life in the universe. (He may have used the tides argument; I now can’t find the book.) I felt at the time — and I gather lots of others have echoed this — that he was unnecessarily constraining his definitions (notably of what constitutes intelligent life) at all levels.

    I think I’ll give Gonzalez’s book a miss! Thanks for the warning.🙂

  20. I can never remember: is Intelligent Design creationism, or not?

    It’s like deja vu all over again.

  21. Twelve comments and only one worth responding to. That’s about what I expect.

    @realthog:
    a) It’s a matter of the proper strength of the magnetosphere and for that you need the right sized planet, the right amount of iron and a spinning core.
    b) Red dwarfs (80% of stars) are smaller and cooler and therefore have a smaller habitable zone orbiting closer to the host star. Planets are, by your own admission, subject to tidal locking.
    c) See b). Conversely more massive stars last tens of millions of years – not billions or trillions.
    d) See this Nature article. The text of the article shows chaotic variations over just 18Myrs and 50Mys which is quite a short time geologically.

  22. michaelfugate

    Did you have a point Kevin? If everything were exactly opposite, you would still conclude Christianity were true, no?

  23. It’s the strange belief that invoking a designer explains anything. You know, like finding an old-style spring-driven watch and inferring a designer but failing to infer a machine shop and a metallurgist.

    New World Intelligent Designers are all Old Earth Creationists. Old World IDers are all Young Earth Creationists. That’s because Intelligent Design is science and nothing to do with creationism.

  24. 14 comments
    We’re talking planets people!

  25. Holding the Line in Florida

    Now here is a story that will soil their pampers.
    Scientists take big step toward recreating primordial ‘RNA world’ of 4 billion years ago https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/08/160815185822.htm
    I guess the Intelligent Designer said, “Let there be RNA!” and floated away satisfied with a job well done and probably curious as to how it would all come out!

  26. KevinC and those that follow the “Privileged Planet” reasoning are like those that look at a tree in the forest and say, “Wow! The chance that this exact tree, of this exact age, with this exact branch pattern, in this exact place is so improbable! A Magic Faerie must have planted it!”

    The actual question to ask is: “What are the chances of a fairly unique tree being in a forest?” Pretty good, actually.

    In a universe with billions of galaxies with billions of stars each the chances of NOT getting a planet that suits life is rather the larger improbability.

  27. Twenty-five years of theorizing and nothing more than “something is wrong with evolution, thus intelligent design.”

  28. We’re talking planets people!

    No, we‘re talking planets, Kevin. You’re talking . . . no, I’d better not.

    by your own admission

    I wasn’t “admitting” anything. I was pointing it out.

    The response of yours that I enjoyed the most was “The text of the article shows chaotic variations over just 18Myrs and 50Mys which is quite a short time geologically..” You’re right: 18MY or even 50MY is geologically not a long time. But it’s a heck of a long time for organisms to adapt to new conditions.

    The problem with all of your arguments here, Kevin, is that they’re entirely speculative — far more than you’d find any SETI enthusiast being. (Okay, they’re not as speculative as the Drake Equation, but that’s yesterday’s news.) You speculate that this, that or the other condition is a prerequisite for the emergence of life. We don’t know any of that. We’re not even sure how life emerged here, or the conditions that favored said emergence. The evidence from our own planet is that life will be everywhere it possibly can be, in a huge diversity of environments.

    While it’s kind of you to single out my response, you ought to pay heed to Eddie Janssen’s.

  29. KevinC might be unshaken, it’s still getting closer and closer ……

    http://www.giss.nasa.gov/research/news/20160811/

  30. michaelfugate

    Tell you what Oh Sensuous One: find us an earthlike planet with an anomalously large moon, a self-generating magnetosphere and a multi-billion year near-circular orbit around a main sequence G-type star and then you’ve got my attention. Until then, stop seeing creationist nightmares where none exist. It only makes you look desperate.

    This from a guy who believes in an all powerful, all benevolent, all present supernatural presence residing outside time and space… Talk about desperate.

  31. See, it’s people like KevinC that make me honestly nervous to say that I’m a Christian on science blogs.

    If you have a faith that is so delicate that it can’t tolerate the mere existence of reality, I question whether it’s worth having at all. I’m so glad I can instead get excited about this news and hope that we reach this planet within the lifetime of at least one of my sons.

  32. The thing about our privileged planet is that it has only been privileged, from our point of view, for brief periods in it’s history.

    For the first 3 billion years or so, the atmosphere did not contain any appreciable amount of oxygen, and none existed in the oceans. Since the oxygenation of the atmosphere and more importantly the oceans (in the late Precambrian), sea levels have been 600 feet higher than today, the earth experienced a period of almost complete glaciation, oxygen levels varied between ~10% (Triassic) and a massively fire inducing ~32% (carboniferous), and of course the planet has been hit by very large rocks, experienced wide regions of extensive volcanism, and other disastrous conditions which have nearly wiped out life on the privileged planet several times.

    It might be better to look for life on planets with a little less “privilege.”

  33. @Reflectory – Wow! What are the chances that someone with the moniker Reflectory would post a comment on an obscure blog at 2:40pm on August 16, 2016. It boggles the mind! In all seriousness I never understood why people find this chance argument so profound. Stating the details of some event after the fact means ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.

    @realthog – The response that I enjoyed the most is you saying organisms can adapt to new conditions. I’m arguing that conditions will not be met for organisms to exist in the first place if a number of astronomical and geological features are not in place. And what about my arguments do you find entirely speculative? Was there something in the Nature abstract that you found troubling?

    @mnb0 – yeah, that one keeps me awake at night😉

    @dweller42 – Yours is a curious statement. Exactly what “reality” am I not able to tolerate?

    @Ed – by your logic, the first 9.2 billion years of the universe proves that our planet is not privileged.

  34. @KevinC

    “And what about my arguments do you find entirely speculative?”

    You know the answer to this question, because I spelled it out for you.

    “I’m arguing that conditions will not be met for organisms to exist in the first place if a number of astronomical and geological features are not in place.”

    But you’ve so far produced no convincing evidence for this. Nobody disagrees with you that life on earth is adapted to conditions on earth. You say as if it were established fact that life couldn’t have emerged on an earth subject to changes of climate zones occurring over periods of 18-50MY, but that’s pure speculation on your part (or on the part of whomever you got the notion from).

  35. Kevin,

    “Stating the details of some event after the fact means ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.”

    Yeah…and that was the point of the illustration as it is what those subscribing to “privileged planet” reasoning do. I thought that that point was obvious, but apparently not.

  36. michaelfugate

    Kevin, are you claiming that your god couldn’t create life any place it wanted?

  37. Good grief, realthog, do you even read your own stuff?!

    Your first comment states:
    “Reading elsewhere about this news I gather that, even if confirmed, the fact that the planet’s in the Goldilocks Zone needn’t mean that it’s habitable. Because Proxima Centauri is so small and dim, the Goldilocks Zone is pretty close to the star — the orbital period’s just a few days — so the planet’s almost certain to be tidally locked. Although a turbulent atmosphere might mean that the far side wasn’t permanently in conditions of complete frigidity, the nearness to the star might well mean the atmosphere is long gone. Tide-induced geothermal energy/volcanism might likewise warm the far side, but, in the absence of an atmosphere, this isn’t likely to be helpful; plus, if the facing side has no atmosphere, conditions there aren’t going to be much fun either.” [Emphasis mine]

    Why are you dubious of the planet’s habitability based on conditions you state but my skepticism is purely speculative? You base your doubts about life on Proxima Centauri’s planet on a handful of parameters – lack of atmosphere, extreme temperatures, etc. My list of parameters is simply a bit longer than yours. You implicitly accept that there is a line of demarcation between what is necessary for life and what is not. There’s little difference between us.

  38. “I’m arguing that conditions will not be met for organisms to exist in the first place if a number of astronomical and geological features are not in place.”

    Wait, I thought that the details after the fact meant absolutely nothing. Sorry: ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.

  39. @michaelfugate
    And, that privilege means that god (designers, the supernatural) is not needed for life?
    What is the meaning of privilege if it is neither necessary nor sufficient for life?

  40. @KevinC (though why I bother . . .)

    Why are you dubious of the planet’s habitability based on conditions you state but my skepticism is purely speculative?

    You see, here’s where you’re being deceptive, and I would say quite deliberately so. I’m dubious if life could emerge in those (extreme, in our terms) conditions, but I don’t rule it out, especially given the enormous timescales on offer. You’re saying it’s impossible for life to emerge anywhere unless conditions are exactly like those on the primordial earth.

    Do you see the difference between dubiety and outright denial?

  41. Ah, I see why you would think I’m being deliberately deceptive; you’re putting words in my mouth.
    Have I ever said “impossible”? No. Have I ever said conditions have to be “exactly like those on the primordial earth”? No. But I do know what’s necessary for carbon-based life and so do astrobiologists (at least those not from Kooksville).

    This whole thing got started with TSC’s fantasy that “creationists”* are having fits over the discovery of exoplanets. We’re not and I’m giving my reasons why you – who aren’t ruling anything out – are in for a lifetime of disappointment. When NASA is speculating that Venus might have been habitable, I’ve got nothing to worry about. Keep on keepin’ the faith, realthog

    * I use that term loosely since there seems to be no fewer than a dozen definitions)

  42. There is a certain kind who makes incoherent statements. When the rest of the world does not understand him, that proves that his thoughts are too deep for the common people to be understood.

  43. TomS, exactly. And, like the movie says, against such people the only willing move is not to play.

    Kevin, I sincerely wish you the best – I regret that it appears you’re consciously avoiding it, but, well, that is your choice.

  44. I don’t really like Goldilocks-zone arguments. Three or four thousand million years ago, when life on Earth was getting started, the young Sun was much cooler than our current middle-aged Sun, but the Earth’s atmosphere contained large quantities of methane and carbon dioxide, powerful greenhouse gasses, so the average temperature was not inimical to life. As the Sun got hotter, Earth would have become too hot for life (“as we know it, Jim”), but luckily the existing life evolved photosynthesis, thus replacing some carbon dioxide by free oxygen, which could be soaked up by removing methane, allowing Earth’s temperature to remain at hospitable levels. And so on. I therefore agree that our existence is a result of a lot of lucky accidents and I don’t expect evidence of advanced extraterrestrial life to be available soon. In the long run though, creationism will certainly lose.

  45. PS. Yes, I know that the oxygen released by photosynthesis come from water, not carbon dioxide, but the balance is the same.

  46. michaelfugate

    What’s wrong with being lucky?

  47. The thing about luck is that you can’t rely on it. We were lucky, and it’s a big universe so plenty of others will have been lucky too, but it would be even more lucky to find others close by.