It could be the most important exoplanet news we've heard to date: Scientists are preparing to announce the discovery of a potentially habitable Earth-like planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, our nearest star neighbor, reports Phys.org.
This wouldn't be the first Earth-like planet discovered in another solar system, but it would be the closest, by far. Proxima Centauri is "only" 4.24 light-years away. That's still too far for a manned mission to visit using current technology... space is big, even between our neighbors. But unmanned probes using experimental propulsion methods currently being designed could make travel possible to the star system in anywhere from 20 years to 100 years, depending on the scope of the project.
That's pretty neat. It's not inconceivable that we could catch a glimpse of another Earth outside our solar system within our lifetimes, or at least within the lifetimes of our next generation.
"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," said an anonymous source with the European Southern Observatory (ESO) team that reportedly made the discovery. "Never before have scientists discovered a second Earth that is so close by."
The source for the report wishes to remain anonymous because ESO is still double- and triple-checking its data before making the announcement official. Proxima Centauri might be close, but it's not a bright star, so detecting a planet within its dim light is pushing the limits of current technology. It's a discovery that scientists want to be certain about before announcing it, though that announcement is expected later this month.
Proxima Centauri is an M-type red dwarf that is part of a three-star system that also includes Alpha Centauri A and B. It's a constellation mostly viewable from the southern hemisphere. Since Proxima Centauri orbits its two Alpha Centauri siblings, there will actually come a time in 27,000 years when Alpha Centauri A and B will be closer to us. Until then, however, Proxima Centauri is as close as any other star comes to our own.
If there is life around this star, it's just a stone's throw away. We'll just need to build the technology to throw one.