A New Planetary Neighbor

Researchers spotted evidence for an exoplanet in the Proxima Centauri system.

Vocabulary: Goldilocks Zone, habitable zone, star, exoplanet, atmosphere

NGSS: ESS1.B- Earth and The Solar System, CC3- Scale, Proportion, and Quantity

Common Core State Standards: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6–8.9, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6–8.4, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9–10.4

This artist’s impression shows a view of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the solar system. The double star Alpha Centauri AB also appears in the image. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

This week, researchers reported in the journal Nature that they had spotted evidence for an exoplanet in the Proxima Centauri system, a mere 4.2 light-years from Earth. This newly found neighbor appears to be 1.3 times the mass of our globe, and it could have a rocky surface. It also appears to be situated in the “habitable zone” of its star — that is, an area that would allow it to potentially have liquid water. However, little is known about the exoplanet, which may not even have an atmosphere. Rachel Feltman of The Washington Post describes this new celestial body.

Audio Excerpt “A Planetary Neighbor” Aug. 26, 2016. (Original Segment)

Print this segment transcript.

Questions for Students

  • What do you think are the minimum requirements for a planet to sustain life? Remember that bacteria and other single-celled organisms count.
  • Think about the story “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”. Why do you think that the term “Goldilocks Zone” is used to describe an area where potentially habitable planets exist?
  • Explain why Rachel Feltman doesn’t want us to classify this new planet as “sort of like Earth.”

Activity Suggestions

[Want more exoplanets? Check out this interview on NASA’s Kepler mission and the 1,2084 new exoplanets it revealed.]