An artist's impression of a flare from Proxima Centauri, modeled after the loops of glowing hot gas seen in the largest solar flares. An artist's impression of a flare from Proxima Centauri, modeled after the loops of glowing hot gas seen in the largest solar flares. An artist's impression of a flare from Proxima Centauri, modeled after the loops of glowing hot gas seen in the largest solar flares. (Photo: Roberto Molar Candanosa / Carnegie Institution for Science, NASA/SDO, NASA/JPL)

There's another Earth out there, and a massive fireball may have just obliterated it

Harvard scientist reveals how it still might be possible for us to move there.

Most college applicants have a backup school. If they don't get into University A, then they can always rely on enrolling in University B. Well, the human race is facing a similar, if more existential, issue.

Many scientists believe that Earth will not be around forever. Whether it's because of climate change, an asteroid hitting us, or some other as-yet-unknown event, something will occur that will make our planet inhospitable. It may happen tomorrow, or it may happen in 1 billion years. But it is likely to happen.

So for the past year and a half, astronomers have been excited about Proxima b, a planet just outside our solar system that appears to be conducive to life. It's 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.

But that may be a moot point. This week it was announced that a gigantic stellar flare erupted nearby and likely baked the surface of the planet. "Huge stellar flare may be the last straw for hopes of life on Proxima b," blared the headline on one science blog. "Proxima Centauri's no good, very bad day," wrote another.

But all may not be lost. Avi Loeb is the chair of Harvard's astronomy department. Born in Israel and educated at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Loeb has spent the past couple of years working on the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative. The audacious $100 million plan is aiming to send hundreds of tiny little cameras past Proxima b to see if the planet could be our new Earth.

So what does he think of today's news?

Loeb said the stellar wind, like the one reported, could indeed heat the planet's surface and limit the prospects of life there. "However, life could be resilient to space weather," he told From The Grapevine. "For example, tardigrades (water bears) are tiny animals that were taken to space a decade ago and partially survived the harsh conditions of space – including vacuum, dehydration, exposure to UV and cosmic rays."

Loeb also believes that some weaker stellar flares may actually play a positive role in enabling the origin of life through the formation of key organic compounds.

Time magazine selected Loeb as one of the 25 most influential people in space. Time magazine selected Loeb as one of the 25 most influential people in space. (Photo: Kris Snibbe / Harvard Gazette)

Fortunately, the Starshot project aims to send hundreds of spacecrafts, which can be directed toward multiple targets. That means that they do not need to assume ahead of time which planets host life.

"We will continue with our goal of exploring nearby planets for signs of life, rather than assuming that life does not exist on particular planets like Proxima b," Loeb told us. "It is better to explore the universe rather than have a prejudice, especially when dealing with life. We better allow ourselves to be surprised."

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There's another Earth out there, and a massive fireball may have just obliterated it
Scientist Avi Loeb from Harvard reveals how it still might be possible for us to move there.