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Something Unusual is Going On With Proxima B Right Now

“ESPRESSO has made it possible to measure the mass of the planet with a precision of over one-tenth of the mass of Earth.”

The closest alien planet to our solar system is even more Earth-like than scientists had thought, new observations suggest.

In a new study, an international team of researchers found that the minimum possible mass for Proxima b, which lies just 4.2 light-years from Earth, is just 17% more massive than our planet.

Previously, scientists thought that this exoplanet, which lies in the habitable zone of its star, harbored a minimum of about 1.3 Earth masses. The new measurement indicates that Proxima b could be even more like our home planet, at least in size, than previous observations led scientists to think.

The research team studied Proxima b using the Echelle Spectrograph for Rocky Exoplanet and Stable Spectroscopic Observations, or ESPRESSO for short.  ESPRESSO is a Swiss spectrograph that is currently mounted on the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope in Chile. Spectrographs observe objects and split the light coming from those objects into the wavelengths that make it up so that researchers can study the object in closer detail.

Proxima b was first detected Five years ago by an older spectrograph, HARPS (“High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher”), which is installed on a scope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile  But with these newer observations, scientists have an updated, ultra-precise view of the planet.

“We were already very happy with the performance of HARPS, which has been responsible for discovering hundreds of exoplanets over the last 17 years,” study co-author Francesco Pepe, an astronomy professor at the University of Geneva in Switzerland and the person in charge of ESPRESSO, said in a statement. “We’re really pleased that ESPRESSO can produce even better measurements, and it’s gratifying and [a] just reward for the teamwork lasting nearly 10 years.”

“ESPRESSO has made it possible to measure the mass of the planet with a precision of over one-tenth of the mass of Earth,” Michel Mayor, a Swiss astrophysicist who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2019 and helped to develop a new type of spectrograph called Elodie, who was not an author on this study, said in the same statement. “It’s completely unheard of.”

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