ESO image of Proxima Centauri

Turns out Proxima b might be more habitable than we thought

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Sep 18, 2018, 9:35 AM EDT

Proxima b previously had a bad rap when it came to habitability. It gets blasted with X-rays and UV rays that corrode the atmosphere with photoevaporation, not to mention supersonic winds that couldn’t possibly be conducive to life as we know it.

But. There’s always a but when it comes to exoplanets that we are constantly finding out more about.

Astronomers are now convinced that Proxima b has vast surface oceans that could be swimming with alien life. Using computer simulations not unlike those that study climate change on the home planet, they have found that Proxima b has the potential for massive quantities of liquid water, and the more liquid water there is, the greater the chance for something alive to be lurking in it.

Proxima Centauri, the cool red dwarf orbited by Proxima b, is relatively close to Earth — 25 trillion miles is nothing in cosmic terms. There has been heavy speculation about whether there could be anything living on Proxima b since its 2016 discovery.

“For an evolutionary path leading to a highly saline ocean, Proxima b could be an inhabited, mostly open ocean planet with halophilic life,” said NASA Goddard planetary scientist Anthony Del Genio and colleagues in a study recently published in the journal Astrobiology.

Meaning, halophiles, or creatures that thrive wherever there are high levels of salt, could have been surviving over there for millions of years for all we know. Or not.

NASA image of Alpha Centauri

Proxima Centauri, the star orbited by Proxima b. Credit: NASA

The upcoming Extremely Large Telescope could give us more insight on this alien world from terra firma. We are still far away from sending even unmanned spacecraft over there, and that is if we can get it to travel at the speed of light. We still know hardly anything about this mysterious exoplanet. The best we can do right now is theorize what Proxima b could be like, which is why Del Genio and his team needed to make informed guesses to further investigate what could be out there.

New simulations have ended up revealing more than those from 2016 that hypothesized about what the atmosphere of Proxima b could be like. Nearly all of the 18 new simulations suggested it has some sort of ocean.

Because the planet is tidally locked, with one side forever facing its star and the other permanently in the dark, scientists conducting that study suggested that radiation would burn up the the star-facing side while there could be a frozen ocean on the night side. In a scenario that Del Genio calls “eyeball Earth”, only a circle of ocean that is warm may actually exist.

Del Genio’s research found that we could be looking at something beyond Eyeball Earth when it comes to water on Proxima b. He believes a dynamic ocean circles the entire equatorial region, an ocean whose waters circulate and transfer heat throughout, kind of like the Gulf Stream currents cool off the West Coast.

Does this mean aliens? If you’re thinking of life as we know it, maybe, but even if Proxima b’s oceans are freezing, you never know what could be waiting for us to find it.

(via LiveScience)