The Pale Red Dot campaign that discovered Proxima Centauri b produced one of the great results of exoplanet detection. For many of us, the idea that a world of roughly Earth mass might be orbiting in Proxima Centauri’s habitable zone — where liquid water can exist on the surface — was almost too good to be true, and it highlighted the real prospect that if we find such a planet around the closest star to our own, there must be many more around similar stars. Hence the importance of learning more about our closest neighbors.
Which is why it’s so heartening to see that Pale Red Dot is by no means done. This morning, the team led by Guillem Anglada-Escudé (Queen Mary University, London) announced plans to acquire data from the European Southern Observatory’s HARPS instrument (High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher) in a new campaign to study not just Proxima Centauri in search of further planets, but also the red dwarfs Barnard’s Star and Ross 154.
Also involved will be a network of small telescopes performing photometric monitoring, including the Las Cumbres Global Observatory Telescope network, SpaceObs ASH2 in Chile, the Observatorio de Sierra Nevada and the Observatorio Astronómico del Montsec, both in Spain. But the star of the show continues to be HARPS, a high-precision spectrograph attached to the ESO’s 3.6-meter telescope at La Silla. HARPS is capable of detecting radial velocity motions down to 3.5 kilometers per hour, the pace of a leisurely evening walk.
Image: Lead author Guillem Anglada-Escudé speaking at a press conference in Garching, Germany about the 2016 discovery of Proxima Centauri b. Credit: ESO/M. Zamani.
Are there other planets around Proxima Centauri? The findings around TRAPPIST-1, all seven of them, give reason to hope that we’ll make further discoveries. As to Barnard’s Star, we still have no information about planets there, although for a time in the mid-20th Century, it was thought due to instrument error that there might be one or more gas giants orbiting the star. We know now that that isn’t the case, but the possibility of terrestrial-class worlds remains.
I’ll have more to say about that situation later in the week, but do want to note that the reason the Project Daedalus planners chose Barnard’s Star as their mission target was the supposition that those planets existed. Proxima Centauri would obviously have been a closer target.
Image: Barnard’s Star ca. 2006. Credit: Steve Quirk.
The M-dwarf Ross 154 is just under 10 light years from Earth, the nearest star in Sagittarius. That distance is closing at a good clip (in astronomical terms), so that the star will come to within about 6.4 light years in another 157,000 years. Like Proxima Centauri, Ross 154 is a UV Ceti-type flare star, producing major flares on the order of every two days. Given that flare activity in M-dwarfs is a major factor in the question of whether life can develop, finding planets close enough to be characterized by later space and ground telescopes would be a significant development, and the more systems the better to allow comparative analysis.
It will be fascinating to watch the new Pale Red Dot campaign develop, for these observations will be highly visible to the general public. While Pale Red Dot presented its results on Proxima b to the public only after extensive peer review, the observational data from the new campaign, beginning with Proxima Centauri, will be revealed and discussed in real time.
— ESO (@ESO) June 19, 2017
The scientists involved intend to maintain an active social media presence supported by various online tools. Keep an eye on the Red Dots Facebook page, the Red Dots Twitter account and the #reddots hashtag, as well as the main project page, where updates and featured contributions from the community will be posted on a regular basis.