from the just-like-earth dept.
[N]ew models increasingly suggest that the closest Earth-like planet to our solar system could be habitable. Researchers first started playing a bit of "fantasy exoplanet" with the rocky world—dubbed Proxima b—last year after scientists discovered it orbiting our nearest neighbor star, Proxima Centauri. With knowledge only of the luminosity of the star (1/600 that of the sun), the mass of the planet (1.3 times that of Earth), and the length of its orbit (11.2 days), the team was able to predict that, with a variety of possible atmospheres, it would be possible for Proxima b to harbor liquid water on its surface.
Now, another team has upped the level of detail by taking a climate model designed for Earth—the Unified Model developed by the United Kingdom's Met Office—and pasted it onto Proxima b.
[...] As the team reports today in Astronomy & Astrophysics, it found an even wider range of circumstances in which Proxima b could have liquid water than the earlier study. The fact that the two very different models agree so closely is "somewhat remarkable," the team writes.
Source: Daniel Clery at sciencemag.org
The Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) has reported the detection of a dust belt around 1-4 astronomical units (AU) from Proxima Centauri, as well as a possible outer belt 30 AU away and an "unknown source" (possible exoplanet) about 1.6 AU away from the star. The data also show "a hint of warmer dust closer to the star".
Proxima b is 0.05 AU from Proxima Centauri, and is considered to be in the star's "habitable zone". The 1-4 AU belt on the other hand has a characteristic temperature of about 40 K, while the 30 AU outer belt would have a temperature of about 10 K. Neptune's moon Triton is roughly 30 AU from the Sun with a temperature of 38 K.
The 1-4 AU belt is estimated to contain 0.01 Earth masses of asteroids (primarily?) up to 50 km in diameter. By comparison, our main asteroid belt (including Ceres) is estimated to contain 4% of the Moon's mass, or about 0.000492 Earth masses (Ceres is about 0.00015 Earth masses, roughly a third of the main asteroid belt). A minimum estimate for the Kuiper belt's mass is 20x that of the main asteroid belt, or the equivalent of this newly detected dust belt around Proxima Centauri.
Astronomy Magazine has an interview with one of the co-authors, who noted another possible exoplanet at 0.5 AU:
At only four light-years away, Proxima b is our closest known extra-solar neighbor. However, due to the fact that it hasn't been seen crossing in front of its host star, the exoplanet eludes the usual method for learning about its atmosphere. Instead, scientists must rely on models to understand whether the exoplanet is habitable.
One such computer model considered what would happen if Earth orbited Proxima Centauri, our nearest stellar neighbor and Proxima b's host star, at the same orbit as Proxima b. The NASA study, published on July 24, 2017, in The Astrophysical Journal Letters [DOI: 10.3847/2041-8213/aa7eca], suggests Earth's atmosphere wouldn't survive in close proximity to the violent red dwarf.
[...] In Proxima Centauri's habitable zone, Proxima b encounters bouts of extreme ultraviolet radiation hundreds of times greater than Earth does from the sun. That radiation generates enough energy to strip away not just the lightest molecules — hydrogen — but also, over time, heavier elements such as oxygen and nitrogen.
The model shows Proxima Centauri's powerful radiation drains the Earth-like atmosphere as much as 10,000 times faster than what happens at Earth.
Previously: "Earth-Like" Exoplanet Found in Habitable Zone of Proxima Centauri
Proxima b May Have Oceans
Researchers Suffocate Hopes of Life Support in Red Dwarf "Habitable Zones"
Proxima B Habitability Study Adds Climate Model