While we continue to labor over the question of planets around Alpha Centauri A and B, Proxima Centauri — that tiny red dwarf with an unusually interesting planet in the habitable zone — remains a robust source of new work. It’s surely going to be an early target for whatever interstellar probes we eventually send, and is the presumptive first destination of Breakthrough Starshot. Now we have news of a possible second planet here, though well outside the habitable zone. Nonetheless, Proxima Centauri c, if it is there, commands the attention.

A new paper offers the results of continuing analysis of the radial velocity dataset that led to the discovery of Proxima b, work that reflects the labors of Mario Damasso and Fabio Del Sordo, who re-analyzed these data using an alternative treatment of stellar noise in 2017. Damasso and Del Sordo now present new evidence, working with, among others, Proxima Centauri b discoverer Guillem Anglada-Escudé, and incorporating astrometric data from the Gaia mission’s Data Release 2 (DR2). The result of the new analysis is a possible planet with an orbital period of 5.2 years and a minimum mass of 5.8 ± 1.9 times the mass of the Earth.

Image: This is Figure 5 from the paper. Caption: Outcomes of the combined analysis of the astrometric and RV datasets. Left: True mass of Proxima c versus the sine of the orbital inclination, as obtained from the astrometric simulations. The black line is the simulated exact solution, the blue dots represent the values derived from the Gaia astrometry alone, while the red dots are the values derived by combining the Gaia astrometry with the radial velocities. Right: Fractional deviation of the true mass (defined as the difference between the simulated and retrieved masses for Proxima c divided by the simulated value) versus sine of the orbital inclination. Credit: Damasso et al.

Remember that when dealing with radial velocity results, we can only draw conclusions on the minimum mass in question, as we don’t know how the system is inclined around the star. The researchers find that by analyzing the photometric data and spectroscopic results, they cannot explain the planetary signal through stellar activity, but they also argue that a good deal of follow-up work is needed through a variety of means. The paper notes, for example, that Proxima was observed with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in 2017, with an unknown source detected at 1.6 AU. Is this evidence for Proxima c?

It’s quite an interesting question, and one that involves more than a new planet:

ALMA imaging could corroborate the existence of Proxima c if the secondary 1.3-mm source is confirmed: In this sense, ALMA follow-up observations will be essential. In (28), the possible existence of a cold dust belt at ?30 AU, with inclination of 45°, is also mentioned. If Proxima c orbits on the same plane, its real mass would be mc = 8.2 M?

Image: Artist’s impression of dust belts around Proxima Centauri. Discovered in data from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, the cold dust appears to be in a region between one to four times as far from Proxima Centauri as the Earth is from the Sun. The data also hint at the presence of an even cooler outer dust belt and may indicate the presence of an elaborate planetary system. These structures are similar to the much larger belts in the Solar System and are also expected to be made from particles of rock and ice that failed to form planets. Such belts may also prove useful in helping us investigate the presence of a possible second planet around this star. Credit: ESO / M. Kornmesser.

But Gaia astrometry is also crucial, for there is some evidence of an anomaly in Proxima’s tangential velocity that, if confirmed, would be compatible with the existence of a planet with a mass in the 10 to 20 Earth range, and a distance between 1 and 2 AU. Further work with Gaia data is clearly in the cards:

Given the target brightness and the expected minimum size of the astrometric signature…, Gaia alone should clearly detect the astrometric signal of the candidate planet at the end of the 5-year nominal mission, all the more so in case of a true inclination angle significantly less than 90°. Proxima is one of the very few stars in the Sun’s backyard for which Gaia alone might be sensitive to an intermediate separation planetary companion in the super-Earth mass regime.

A final consideration is that while the flux contrast between the hypothetical Proxima c and the parent star (depending on albedo, among other things) is beyond the capabilities of our current direct imaging technologies, the apparent separation of planet and star should be accessible to future high-contrast imaging instruments, perhaps the European Extremely Large Telescope, which the paper mentions along with other ground- and space-based instruments. So we have what the authors describe as ‘a very challenging target,’ but one with huge interest for astronomers continuing to characterize this closest of all stellar systems.

It seems premature to get too far into a discussion of how Proxima c formed, since we have yet to confirm it. However, the authors make the case that if it is there, this planet would challenge us to explain how it formed so far beyond the snowline, where super-Earths could take advantage of the accumulation of ices. Perhaps the protoplanetary disk here was warmer than we’ve assumed. In any case, the apparent circularity of the orbit and the absence of more massive planets closer in makes migration from the inner system unlikely. And I think we should leave formation issues there while we await new work, especially the authors note, from ALMA.

The Damasso paper reanalyzing the Proxima Centauri radial velocity data in 2017 is “Proxima Centauri reloaded: Unravelling the stellar noise in radial velocities,” Astronomy & Astrophysics 599, A126 (2017) (abstract/ preprint). The new Damasso et al. paper is “A low-mass planet candidate orbiting Proxima Centauri at a distance of 1.5 AU,’ Science Advances Vol. 6, No. 3 (15 January 2020). Full text.