It’s been pretty easy to brag on current and former University of Texas students and professors, lately, especially thanks to the Rio Olympics. While the gifted athletes demonstrated some truly out of this word performances, another UT-affiliate is making headlines today for something literally out of this world. UT research scientist and lecturer Michael Endl, along with an international team of astronomers, have “found clear evidence of a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Sun,” the University of Texas said in an August 24 press release. They’re calling the planet Proxima b, and it has the potential to support life on its surface.

Endl’s research focus is on the “detection and characterization of extrasolar planets,” according to his UT bio page, and well, that’s exactly what he helped do.

From the release:

The long-sought new world, called Proxima b, orbits its cool red parent star every 11 days and has a temperature suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface. This rocky world is a little more massive than Earth and is the closest known exoplanet to us — and may be the closest possible abode for life outside our solar system.  

“We are all convinced that this is a planet,” Endl said, “especially because there’s such a long timeline of data.”

 

Endl, along with Martin Kuerster now of the MaxPlanck Institute in Heidelberg, Germany,  researched the star from 2000 to 2008. Their data, combined with more recent efforts, created a 16-year study of Proxima Centauri’s behavior. Their research was combined with the newer research of the Pale Red Dot campaign that utilized telescopes around the world to monitor Proxima Centauri for the first half of 2016. Through the campaign’s run the astronomers were “looking for the tiny back and forth wobble of the star that would be caused by the gravitational pull of an orbiting planet.”

What they found was:

At times Proxima Centauri is approaching Earth at about 3 miles per hour (5 kph) — normal human walking pace — and at times receding at the same speed. This regular pattern repeats with a period of 11.2 days.

Careful analysis of this motion indicates the presence of a planet with a mass at least 1.3 times that of the Earth, orbiting about 4.4 million miles (7 million km) from Proxima Centauri — only 5 percent of the Earth-Sun distance.

So while the official UT tagline is “What starts here changes the world,” maybe they should consider changing it to the classic Casey Kasem sign off: “Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.”

For more details on exactly what this new discovery looked like, read the full release at the UT News page.


Featured photo courtesy University of Texas (artist’s impression of Proxima b orbiting Proxima Centauri)

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