A new planet in our neighborhood -- how likely is life?

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  • Don Lincoln says the finding of a relatively close by exoplanet is exciting, but the chances that life exists there are somewhat slim

Dr. Don Lincoln is a senior physicist at Fermilab and does research using the Large Hadron Collider. He has written numerous books and produces a series of science education videos. He is the author of "Alien Universe: Extraterrestrial Life in Our Minds and in the Cosmos." Follow him on Facebook. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Space. The final frontier.

These words inspired many young people to enter science (including me), but I'll bet that's especially true for the team who announced Wednesday that they had found evidence of an Earth-like planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, our closest star. This planet is tentatively called Proxima b.
    Don Lincoln
    Scientists working at the European Southern Observatory (ESO), using the La Silla telescope, claim to have discovered the closest exoplanet to Earth.
    Exoplanet, of course, means planets orbiting stars other than the Sun. Over 3,000 exoplanets have been discovered by facilities like the ESO and the Kepler orbiting observatory. Most of them are huge planets orbiting very near their star -- Jupiter-like planets heated to temperatures guaranteed to sterilize them of life as we know it.
    In recent years, instrumentation has improved to the point that not only can individual planets be found, but even complete solar systems, consisting of many planets. This has been a heady time for planet hunters.
    The goal of those inspired by Star Trek's opening words has not been to find planets, but to find planets that are like Earth -- meaning at a temperature on which liquid water could be present and which could theoretically support some form of life. This is what astronomers call "the habitable zone." In addition, we'd like to find a planet that is nearby.
    After all, space is huge and human spacecraft using current technology would take tens of thousands of years to get to even this, our closest celestial neighbor. To give a sense of scale, that's longer than human civilization has existed. There are plans under discussion that might reduce travel time to a more manageable duration, even less than a single human lifespan.
    So what might this newly discovered planet look like? Well, even though its temperature is thought to be such that liquid water could exist, you shouldn't imagine a lush and verdant world, with lovely blue waters, sandy beaches, lush and green plants, with an excited alien fish occasionally breaching the waters. There are lots of reasons why these are unreasonable expectations.
    Setting aside the possibility of life for a moment, Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf, which is the most common type of star in the galaxy. Red dwarfs are much smaller than our Sun. For instance, Proxima Centauri is only about 1.5 times larger than Jupiter. Red dwarfs are very dim. For instance, in the visible spectrum that we use to see, Proxima Centauri gives off 0.0056% as much as light as the Sun.
    Most of the light given off by Proxima Centauri is in the infrared region, but even if you compare all of the light emitted by Proxima Centauri in all wavelengths to the amount emitted by the Sun, Proxima Centauri still emits only 0.17% as much light as our own life-giving stellar companion. The star also emits as much x-rays as our own Sun, but Proxima b is much closer to its stellar parent, so the surface receives far more x-rays than Earth.
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    In addition to being a very dim star, Proxima Centauri is known to be a "flare star," which means the star periodically gives off far more light than usual. During these flares, the x-ray emission can go up tenfold.
    Because of the star's small size, a planet in the habitable zone will have to be in a very small orbit, taking under two weeks to complete a single orbit. Any planet that close to a star will be "tidally locked," which means that one face of the planet will constantly face the star. This is just like the Earth and Moon, where we see only one side of the Moon throughout the course of the Month. Proxima Centauri's planetary companion will likely have one side in perpetual daylight, while the other is in perpetual night.
    So what about life? Are there any chances that an alien lizard might bask in Proxima Centauri's light or try to find shade under an alien tree? Well, given the instability of the light emitted by the parent star, the answer is likely no, although the real answer to that question is obviously something for observations to answer.
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    Given the very dim light output of the star, it is likely that any hypothetical plants would have to be black, as black is the most light-absorbent color. "Sunlight" would be precious and evolution would drive alien plants to find ways to collect every bit of energy that falls on them.
    Realistically, the prospect of life is improbable. This planet is unlikely to be a haven for people trying to escape the ecological issues of Earth, so we should not view this discovery as a way to ignore our own ecosystem.
    Still, the question of extraterrestrial life is a fascinating one, so astronomers are devising techniques to look at the planet's atmosphere. Certain chemicals, like oxygen or methane, cannot exist long in a planet's atmosphere without being constantly replenished by living organisms. Observing them would be strong evidence for life.
    So, what's the bottom line? First, the discovery, if confirmed is extremely exciting. The existence of a nearby planet in the habitable zone will perhaps increase the interest in efforts like Project Starshot, which aims to send microprobes to Proxima Centauri with a transit time of about twenty years. It may well be that this discovery will excite an entirely new generation of the prospect "to boldly go where no one has gone before."