The ESPRESSO spectrograph confirmed the existence of the earth-like exoplanet Proxima b in the star closest to the Sun. Additional observations made by the tool made it possible to clarify its mass, as well as register a second signal, which theoretically can be explained by the presence of another planet. Accepted for publication at Astronomy & Astrophysics, the preprint is available at arXiv.org.
In 2016, astronomers reported the discovery of the planet at the red dwarf Proxima Centauri, the closest star to Earth, located about 4.2 light-years from Earth. The celestial body revolves around the star with a period of 11.2 days and is in the habitable zone – this means that the conditions on its surface allow the existence of liquid water.
The discovery of Proxima b was one of the most important milestones in exoplanetary astronomy in recent years, but the limited accuracy of the available measurements of radial velocity and the complexity of the simulation required confirmation of the existence of an earth-like planet.
An international group of astronomers used the new-generation spectrograph ESPRESSO, which is part of the VLT complex, to measure the radial velocity of a star with an accuracy of 30 centimeters per second. The data obtained were three times more accurate than the data of the HARPS spectrograph, an instrument of the same type, but of the previous generation, with the help of which the discovery was made. Combining ESPRESSO observations with past measurements showed that the mass of Proxima b is not less than 1.17 earth masses, which is less than the previous estimate of 1.27 earth masses.
In addition, scientists recorded an additional signal repeating with a period of 5.5 days, which so far they have not been able to explain. Hypothetically, it can come from the second planet: if the assumption is true, then its minimum mass is less than a third of the earth, and it is located at a distance of 0.03 astronomical units from Proxima Centauri (one astronomical unit is equal to the average distance from the Earth to the Sun).
In the past, researchers suspected the existence of another planet in the system – this time the super-earth, on which the year lasts about five years. It is five and a half times more massive than the Earth and may have rings similar to the rings of Saturn, but this discovery has not yet been confirmed.