Humanity has been identifying planets outside our solar system for a long time, so how on Earth (no pun intended) did we miss the closest potential planet orbiting our closest star?
Space caught up with Michael Endl, an astronomer at the McDonald Observatory who was on the discovery team for Proxima b, to talk about how scientists manage to miss the nearby Earth-size planet orbiting Proxima Centauri — a red dwarf star just 4 light-years away from Earth.
Endi noted that astronomers have been looking for a planet like Proxima b ever since we started scoping out the stars. It just took us spotting more than 3,000 other potential planets before this one. It took astronomers so long to find Proxima b because it’s a (relatively) small planet orbiting a (relatively) small star. It took a ton of dedication and approximately a decade of work to realize Proxima b is there, watching for the “wobble” of Proxima Centauri as the planet orbits.
It’s just that Proxima b is so small, the “wobble” is right on the cusp of what our current technology can actually detect. So it took a whole lot of watching and waiting to confirm there really is a planet out there in the “Goldilocks zone.”
Now we just need to get a probe out there to check it out.