Hello, friends! As you know, Saturn is a really pretty planet. That’s not an opinion. It’s a scientific fact. But in the solar system right next door to our own, there is a planet even prettier than Saturn. As you can see in the highly technical diagram below, the planet Proxima Centauri c may be the brightest, shiniest, prettiest planet known to human science!
The last time I wrote about Proxima Centauri c, the planet was only suspected to exist, based on circumstantial evidence. But according to this press release, Proxima c’s existence is now confirmed. Additional data about the planet was found in archived Hubble Space Telescope images dating back to the 1990’s.
However, certain details about Proxima c remain difficult to explain. Most notably, the planet (as observed in infrared light) appears to be way, waaaay brighter than we would expect, based upon its estimated mass (approximately seven times the mass of Earth). In my highly technical diagram, I tried to make Proxima c look as bright and shiny as possible, but I’m starting to think I didn’t make the planet bright and shiny enough!
According to this paper on Proxima c’s infrared signature, one possible explanation is a “conspicuous ring system” that’s reflecting a whole lot of extra sunlight. If that’s the case, Proxima c really would be a stunningly beautiful sight, with wide, glorious rings that would put the rings of Saturn to shame. However, that same paper offers other possible explanations that sound far more grim. Something horrible may have happened to Proxima c and/or its moons. But I’ll save that for Friday’s episode of Sciency Words.
P.S.: If you own a backyard telescope or a pair of binoculars and want to see Proxima c for yourself, well… you can’t. But if you have access to a high powered astronomical observatory, there’s a really interesting technique that can help you find Proxima c and planets like it. Science communicator Elizabeth Tasker has written an excellent article about that. Click here!