Could life exist on the planet?
Well, that depends on a number of things. First, we need to know what sort of atmosphere it has, if it has one all. The planet takes about 11.2 Earth days to orbit its star, and at that distance, it is almost certainly tidally locked. This means one of its sides always faces its star, and is in perpetual heat, while the other side points away with endless cold nights. A thick atmosphere, though, could transfer heat around the planet.
We also don’t know the planet’s size, which would be a factor in things. Red dwarfs also emit less light than our Sun, so there’s less energy available for life. The crux of it is that if life does exist there, it is likely to be microbial in nature, rather than anything bigger like on Earth.
How can we learn more about the planet?
We’re going to need bigger and better telescopes. Upcoming projects like the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will potentially give us a better glimpse at the world, and possibly even allow us to directly image it.
Studying the planet in greater detail, though, such as measuring its atmosphere, will heavily rely on whether the planet transits its star from our point of view or not. We don’t yet know if the planet’s orbit takes it in front of its star relative to us. If it does, we can measure the star’s light coming through the atmosphere to work out the planet’s atmospheric composition, and even see tell-tale signs of life on the surface. If it doesn’t transit, things will get a lot more difficult.
Can we ever go there?
At 4.2 light-years away, Proxima b is the closest exoplanet ever discovered. This distance, though, is still 40 trillion kilometers (25 trillion miles) away. Our furthest spacecraft from Earth, Voyager 1, has traveled a measly 20 billion kilometers (12 billion miles) in about 40 years. So, by conventional means, it would be tough, taking tens of thousands of years to get there.
But there is another way. Earlier this year, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announced a project – in partnership with names such as Stephen Hawking – to send tiny spacecraft to the Alpha Centauri system, which contains Proxima Centauri. Called Breakthrough Starshot, the project would propel thousands of probes with large sails using lasers fired from Earth, reaching 20 percent the speed of light to make the journey in 20 years.
A recent study has suggested the probes might not survive the journey. But, if they could, it would give us a way to study Proxima b up close in decades, rather than many millennia.