Chances of finding life on Proxima b
From the data gathered, the team has determined quite a lot about the planet’s properties. It orbits Proxima every 11.2 days, which places it a tenth of the distance from its star as Mercury is from the sun. While that would be an extremely unpleasant place to be in our solar system, at Proxima that’s just within the estimated “habitable zone” – an area where it is plausible that liquid water could exist on the surface of a planet. Proxima b is also at least 30% heavier than our world and if it is in fact rocky its surface gravity might only be 10% more than we’re used to.
So what are the possibilities for life on Proxima b? That’s hard to say just yet. We don’t know if the planet has an atmosphere at all, let alone what it might be made of. Over the next few years we might be able to figure that out using Hubble or the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope.
These might also reveal if any of the ingredients for life are present. But Proxima b may not be quite as hospitable as Earth. Red dwarf stars are incredibly violent so Proxima Centauri could bombard the planet with radiation. The proximity of Proxima b to the star could also mean that the planet is “tidally locked”, with one side always facing the star in perpetual day and the other in unending darkness. This would result in extremes of temperature: hot desert and barren rock versus frozen wasteland.
The true test would be to go there. Using conventional space technology (either manned or unmanned) and some clever slingshot manoeuvres, it would take at least 15,000 years to reach Proxima Centauri. But the ambitious Starshot Project aims to send tiny robots to this star system, propelled by powerful Earth-based lasers. They are estimating that it would only take about 20 years to get there in this manner, travelling at a speed of approximately 60,000 km per second (or 135m miles per hour). Those robots could relay back data about the system, and potentially even closeup pictures of Proxima b.
It certainly seems possible that we could find something out of this world within our lifetime.