The forecast for Proxima b: Wet with a chance of alien life

Researchers modeled the climate of the nearest exoplanet and found the weather might be much more pleasant than nearby worlds in our own solar system.

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Eric Mack
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ESO/M. Kornmesser

Last year we learned the closest star beyond our solar system hosts a planet, Proxima Centauri b or Proxima b, that looks like it's situated in such a way that it could support life. But whether this world four light-years away is actually habitable depends on lots of factors, like the climate, for one.

Scientists from the University of Exeter have taken the first steps to try to figure out whether the weather patterns on Proxima b are as nice as a Northern California evening or a little more volatile and violent, like the horrific hellscape on nearby Venus.

Researchers used climate modeling software from the Met Office (the UK's national weather service) to simulate what Proxima b's climate might be like and came away with good news for anyone hoping that our nearest exoplanet neighbor might host alien life.

"Overall, our results are in agreement with previous studies in suggesting Proxima Centauri B may well have surface temperatures conducive to the presence of liquid water," reads the group's study published in the current issue of the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

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That's good news, because so far as we know in our limited experience with life on planets it needs liquid water to survive.

The team created a computer model for Proxima b's climate using the assumption that it may have an atmospheric composition similar to Earth's, but also ran a separate model with a much simpler atmosphere of nitrogen with traces of carbon dioxide. The models also took variations in the planet's orbit into consideration.

"Our research team looked at a number of different scenarios for the planet's likely orbital configuration using a set of simulations," explained Dr. Ian Boutle, lead author of the paper. "As well as examining how the climate would behave if the planet was 'tidally-locked' (where the same side of the planet is always facing its star), we also looked at how an orbit similar to Mercury, which rotates three times on its axis for every two orbits around the sun (a 3:2 resonance), would affect the environment."

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Remarkably, all the different scenarios and simulations showed that climate on Proxima b could be quite stable and support a potentially habitable world.

Before planning your existential escape from Earth itinerary around Proxima b, keep in mind this research amounts to an educated, but still very early and limited, guess about what could be going on on this far-off planet.

Fortunately, we might not be too far off from being able to get a better look. The Stephen Hawking and Mark Zuckerberg-backed Breakthrough Starshot Initiative would like to send a tiny nanocraft there to take some pictures in the coming decades. And when NASA launches its James Webb Space Telescope next year, it could help us learn what, exactly, the atmosphere, climate and perhaps any residents of Proxima b are like.

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