Astronomers have been trying for decades to find a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the star closest to our sun and so a natural and tempting target. Claims of an exoplanet discovery have been made before, but so far none have held up.
Now, in a novel and very public way, a group of European astronomers have initiated a focused effort to change all that with their Pale Red Dot Campaign. Based at the La Silla Observatory in Chile, and supported by networks of smaller telescopes around the world, they will over the next three months observe Proxima and its environs and then will spend many more months analayzing all that they find.
And in an effort to raise both knowledge and excitement, the team will tell the world what they’re doing and finding over Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other social and traditional media of all kind.
“We have reason to be hopeful about finding a planet, but we really don’t know what will happen,” said Guillem Anglada-Escudé of Queen Mary University, London, one of the campaign organizers. “People will have an opportunity to learn how astronomers do their work finding exoplanets, and they’ll be able to follow our progress. If we succeed, that would be wonderful and important. And if no planet is detected, that’s very important too.”
The name of the campaign is, of course, a reference to the iconic “Pale Blue Dot” image of Earth taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1990, when it was well beyond Pluto. The image came to symbolize our tiny but precious place in the galaxy and universe.
But rather than potentially finding a pale blue dot, any planet orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri would reflect the reddish light of the the star, which lies some 4.2 light years away from our solar system. Proxima — as well as 20 of the 30 stars in our closest neighborhood — is reddish because it is considerably smaller and less luminous than a star like our sun.
Anglada-Escudé said he is cautiously optimistic about finding a planet because of earlier Proxima observations that he and colleagues made at the same observatory. That data, he said, suggested the presence of a planet 1.2… Read more