Proxima Centauri, which is in the constellation of Centaurus 4.2 light-years from Earth. Proxima Centauri, which is in the constellation of Centaurus 4.2 light-years from Earth. Proxima Centauri, which is in the constellation of Centaurus 4.2 light-years from Earth. (Photo: NASA)

There's another Earth? Why researchers are confident about new claim

Team member Dr. Aviv Ofir from the Weizmann Institute in Israel says discovery is backed by 'extraordinary evidence.'

You may want to sit down for this: A team of scientists has just discovered another Earth-like planet.

Astronomers announced on Wednesday that they had discovered a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, which is right next door to our solar system. While there's no way of knowing – just yet – if there's an entire society of humans living on the new planet, it is theoretically possible. The planet, known for now simply as Proxima b., is in the “Goldilocks zone,” which means it's neither too hot nor too cold. At that temperature, there could be water, which means there could be life.

The global effort included scientists from the U.S., the U.K, Chile, Poland, Germany, Spain, France and Israel. One of the researchers was Dr. Aviv Ofir from the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. We reached him by phone just hours after the announcement.

"I'm gonna try to finish my own work today before all hell breaks loose tomorrow," he told From The Grapevine with a laugh.

Aviv Ofir was one of more than two dozen scientists who authored a new study.Dr. Aviv Ofir was one of more than two dozen scientists who authored a new study. (Photo: Courtesy photo)

Ofir and the other scientists didn't discover this planet overnight. Indeed, they relied on 15 years' worth of data. But even that wasn't enough. They received special permission from the European Southern Observatory, a 16-nation intergovernmental research group for ground-based astronomy, to have telescopes monitor a certain section of the sky every night for 20 minutes. After two months of that data, the scientists believed they were on to something special.

"Initially, you see some hints, and then the hints become a little bit more secure," he explained. "It wasn't 'Wham! Bam! Here's a surprise! A new planet is here!' It was slowly being born. It was slowly being distilled after the data. And the more data you have, the better it looks and the less doubts you have about this claim."

He paused to consider what they had actually just discovered. "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And we hope that we have brought this evidence. There is something there."

The discovery was published in the journal Nature.

Raised in Kfar Saba, a small town in central Israel, the 39-year-old Ofir had no idea he'd one day help discover another Earth. "When I was growing up, there were no known planets outside the solar system," he said. "This is a whole new field. The first one was discovered just in 1995. When I was starting my astronomy career, there were only a handful known and we knew them by name – each and every one of them. There were so few of them."

But with new technology, that's now changing. "Recently, just in the past few years, the field is just exploding. It's great," Ofir said. "New planets are being discovered on a weekly if not daily basis."

That being said, the new discovery is being hailed as a breakthrough. Avi Loeb, an Israeli theoretical physicist at Harvard University, is helping with the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative, a project that's working on sending handheld space ships into the sky to get a closer look at this and other new planets. “We will definitely aim at Proxima,” Loeb told the New York Times. “This is like finding prime real estate in our neighborhood.”

Ofir is excited about the possibilities. "If you collaborate with others, you can access large facilities and make significant contributions," he told us. "I think that tomorrow will be a little bit busier."

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