Although I think most astronomers have assumed Proxima Centauri was bound to the central binary at Alpha Centauri, the case wasn’t definitively made until fairly recently. Here we turn to Pierre Kervella (Observatoire de Paris), Frédéric Thévenin (Côte d’Azur Observatory) and Christophe Lovis (Observatoire Astronomique de l’Université de Genève). We last saw Dr. Kervella with reference to a paper on aerographite as a sail material, but his work has appeared frequently in these pages, analyzing mission trajectories and studying the Alpha Centauri system. Here he and his colleagues use HARPS spectrographic data to demonstrate that we have at Centauri a single gravitationally bound triple system. This is important stuff; let me quote the paper on this work to explain why (italics mine):

Although statistical considerations are usually invoked to justify that Proxima is probably in a bound state, solid proof from dynamical arguments using astrometric and radial velocity (RV) measurements have never been obtained at a sufficient statistical significance level. As discussed by Worth & Sigurdsson (2016), if Proxima is indeed bound, its presence may have impacted planet formation around the main binary system.

This is a six-year old paper, but I want to return to it now because a new paper from the same team will tighten up its conclusions and slightly alter some of them. We’ve gone from resolving whether Proxima is bound to the A/B binary to pondering the issues involved in the dynamical history of this complex system. That in turn can inform the ongoing search for planets around Centauri A and B at least in terms of explaining what we might find there and how these two systems evolved. The original paper on this work lays out the challenges involved in tracing the orbit of the red dwarf. For HARPS is exquisitely sensitive to the Doppler shifts of starlight, and these data, obtained between 2004 and 2016, contain potential booby traps for analysis.

Image: Pierre Kervella, of the Observatoire de Paris/PSL.

Convective blueshift is one of these. We’re looking at the star’s spectral lines as we calculate its motion, and some of these are displaced toward the blue end of the spectrum because of the structure of its surface convection patterns. The lifting and sinking of hot internal gases has to be factored into the analysis and its effect nulled out. The spectral lines are displaced toward the blue, in effect a negative radial velocity shift, although the effect is stronger for hotter stars. In the case of Proxima, Kervella’s team finds a relatively small convective blueshift, though still one to be accounted for.

A similar though more significant issue is gravitational redshift, which occurs as photons climb out of the star’s gravity well. Here the effect is “an important source of uncertainty on the RV of Proxima” whose value can be established and corrected. How the astronomers went about making these corrections is laid out in a discussion of radial velocities that aspiring exoplanet hunters will want to read.

Image: Orbital plot of Proxima showing its position with respect to Alpha Centauri over the coming millenia (graduations in thousands of years). The large number of background stars is due to the fact that Proxima is located very close to the plane of the Milky Way. Credit: P. Kervella/ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2/Davide De Martin/Mahdi Zamani.

Out of all this we learn that Proxima’s elliptical orbit around Centauri A and B’s barycenter extends from 800 billion kilometers when closest (periastron) to 1.9 trillion kilometers at apastron, its farthest distance, with an orbital period of approximately 550,000 years. The orbital phase is currently closest to apastron.

The Astronomy & Astrophysics site (this is the journal in which the paper above appeared) is currently down, so I’m quoting from the version of the paper on arXiv, which after noting that the escape velocity of Alpha Centauri at Proxima’s distance (545 +/- 11 m/s) is about twice as large as Proxima’s measured velocity, goes on to speculate in an intriguing way:

Proxima could have played a role in the formation and evolution of its planet (Anglada-Escudé et al. 2016). Conversely, it may also have influenced circumbinary planet formation around αCen (Worth & Sigurdsson 2016). A speculative scenario is that Proxima b formed as a distant circumbinary planet of the αCen pair, and was subsequently captured by Proxima. Proxima b could then be an ocean planet resulting from the meltdown of an icy body (Brugger et al. 2016). This would also mean that Proxima b may not have been located in the habitable zone (Ribas et al. 2016) for as long as the age of the αCen system (5 to 7 Ga; Miglio & Montalbán 2005; Eggenberger et al. 2004; Kervella et al. 2003; Thévenin et al. 2002).

The idea of Proxima b as a captured planet has not to my knowledge appeared anywhere else in the literature. I was fascinated, enough so that I dashed off a quick email to Dr. Kervella asking about this as well as the current status of the orbital calculations. And indeed, his response indicates new work in progress:

… we identified a mistake in our 2017 determination of the orbital parameters of Proxima. In the papier, they are expressed in the Galactic coordinate system, and the orbital inclination is thus not directly comparable to that of the Alpha Cen AB orbit. We are preparing a new publication with revised orbits and parameters for all three stars. The main difference is that now the orbital plane of Proxima is better aligned with that of AB. The gravitationally bound nature of Proxima with Alpha Cen AB is also strengthened, as we include new astrometry and radial velocities.

I’ll cover the new paper as soon as it appears. Dr. Kervella also observes that confirming a scenario of Proxima b as a captured planet would be difficult (Proxima b has ‘forgotten’ the history of its orbital evolution, as he puts it), meaning that working with astrometric data alone will not be sufficient. But the arrival of telescopes like the Extremely Large Telescope, now under construction in Chile’s Atacama Desert with first light planned for 2028, should signal a treasure trove of new information. A spectrum obtained by ELT could show us whether Proxima b is indeed an ocean planet.

The paper on Proxima Centauri’s orbit is Kervella, Thévenin & Lovis, “Proxima’s orbit around α Centauri,” Astronomy & Astrophysics Vol. 598 (February 2017), L7 (abstract/preprint).