Nearest stellar neighbor may have Earth-like planet


Scientists are preparing to unveil a new planet around our nearest stellar neighbor that is believed to be Earth-like and orbits at a distance that could favor life, the German weekly Der Spiegel reported Friday.

The exoplanet orbits a well-investigated star called Proxima Centauri, part of the Alpha Centauri triple star system, the magazine said, quoting anonymous sources.

“The still-nameless planet is believed to be Earth-like and orbits at a distance to Proxima Centauri that could allow it to have liquid water on its surface — an important requirement for the emergence of life,” said the magazine.

“Never before have scientists discovered a second Earth that is so close by,” it said, adding that the European Southern Observatory (ESO) will announce the finding at the end of August.

The report gave no further details.

ESO spokesman Richard Hook said he was aware of the report but refused to confirm or deny it.

Proxima Centauri is nearer to Earth than the tighter pair in the Alpha Centauri system, lying just 4.24 light-years away.

This is a mere steppingstone in relation to the scale of the universe but still too far away for humans to reach in present-generation chemical rockets. It lies 39.9 trillion kilometers away — 271,000 times the distance from Earth to the sun.

Proxima Centauri, discovered in 1915, is a red dwarf and far too faint to see with the naked eye. The Alpha Centauri system is in a constellation mainly visible from the Southern Hemisphere.

NASA has announced the discovery of new planets in the past, but most of those worlds were either too hot or too cold to host water in liquid form or else were gas giants, like Jupiter and Neptune, rather than rocky worlds like Earth or Mars.

Last year, the U.S. space agency unveiled an exoplanet that it described as Earth’s “closest twin.” Named Kepler 452b, the planet is about 60 percent larger than Earth and could have active volcanoes, oceans, sunshine like ours, twice as much gravity and a year that lasts 385 days.

But at a distance of 1,400 light-years away, humankind has little hope of reaching this Earth twin any time soon.