Clouds of dust discovered around closest star to the Sun

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Proxima Centauri

Scientists have discovered clouds of dust around closest star to the Sun – the Proxima Centauri – indicating that there is likely presence of elaborate planetary system.

The discovery was made through the use of ALMA. Proxima Centauri is a faint red dwarf lying just four light-years away in the southern constellation of Centaurus (The Centaur). The star has a Earth-sized temperate world Proxima b orbiting it.

Dust belts are the remains of material that did not form into larger bodies such as planets. The particles of rock and ice in these belts vary in size from the tiniest dust grain, smaller than a millimetre across, up to asteroid-like bodies many kilometres in diameter. Dust appears to lie in a belt that extends a few hundred million kilometres from Proxima Centauri and has a total mass of about one hundredth of the Earth’s mass. This belt is estimated to have a temperature of about -230 degrees Celsius, as cold as that of the Kuiper Belt in the outer Solar System.

There are also hints in the ALMA data of another belt of even colder dust about ten times further out. If confirmed, the nature of an outer belt is intriguing, given its very cold environment far from a star that is cooler and fainter than the Sun. Both belts are much further from Proxima Centauri than the planet Proxima b, which orbits at just four million kilometres from its parent star.

Guillem Anglada, from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía (CSIC), Granada, Spain, explains the implications of the discovery: “This result suggests that Proxima Centauri may have a multiple planet system with a rich history of interactions that resulted in the formation of a dust belt. Further study may also provide information that might point to the locations of as yet unidentified additional planets.”

Proxima Centauri’s planetary system is also particularly interesting because there are plans — the Starshot project — for future direct exploration of the system with microprobes attached to laser-driven sails. A knowledge of the dust environment around the star is essential for planning such a mission.

Co-author Pedro Amado, also from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía, explains that this observation is just the start: “These first results show that ALMA can detect dust structures orbiting around Proxima. Further observations will give us a more detailed picture of Proxima’s planetary system. In combination with the study of protoplanetary discs around young stars, many of the details of the processes that led to the formation of the Earth and the Solar System about 4600 million years ago will be unveiled. What we are seeing now is just the appetiser compared to what is coming!”

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