Last month’s discovery of Proxima b, a planet orbiting the nearby star Proxima Centauri, has already grabbed the attention of astrophysicists all over the world, and those at ASU are no exception.Enter astrophysics professor Evgenya Shkolnik. Her research focuses on ultraviolet light, so in response to the new planet, Shkolnik submitted a proposal to observe the UV light from Proxima Centauri, which could give hints on how habitable the planet can be. “Our proposal was to look at the ultraviolet radiation with the host star,” she said. “The UV light is very important in understanding the planetary atmosphere. For instance, if you have water molecules in a planet’s atmosphere, and you have a very large amount of UV photons, those can destroy the water in the atmosphere.
In order to understand the likelihood of Proxima b being habitable, we need to understand its high energy radiation environment.”
Answering many questions about Proxima b depends on new technology to analyze the planet from up close — namely, propelling small probes at an immense speed toward the planet — but this technology is still very early in its development.
“We’re looking at stars from a distance, but we learn so much,” Shkolnik said. “We are learning about our own solar system, like how planets form and how life may have evolved on earth by studying the thousands of nearby solar systems.”
Shkolnik said Proxima b’s location vastly differentiates the planet from other discoveries.
“It’s not the first planet we’ve found, and it won’t be the last,” Shkolnik said. “But it is the closest one we’ve found, and it will be the closest one we find forever because it’s around the closest star to our solar system. The discovery affects the field quite dramatically because the planet is not much bigger than the earth and at a similar temperature, so it makes you wonder if liquid water could exist on the planet. It’s only 4.3 light-years away.” (Source & more)