Monday, November 6, 2017

Proxima Centauri Appears to Have a Kuiper Belt

Our nearest neighboring star just got a whole lot richer as a system—and a whole lot weirder.

In research published today in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, researchers from the European Southern Observatory announced … quite a few things, really. The biggest and brightest—literally—of their discoveries is a ring of icy dust around our nearest star, Proxima Centauri, that’s sort of like that system’s version of the Kuiper Belt.

The Kuiper Belt is a circumstellar disc of material that envelopes the solar system’s planets. The belt contains rocks and ices left over from the formation of the solar system’s planets, and also includes dwarf planets like Pluto. But Proxima Centauri is a star that’s much smaller than the Sun, so its dust belt sits much closer, about 1 to 4 times the distance of the Earth to the Sun (called an astronomical unit or AU in space parlance). And when you spot these kinds of belts around stars, it’s often a strong indication of planetary formation.

“[I]n my opinion what we found in Proxima Centauri suggests an elaborate system that might be harboring several planets,” Mayra Osorio of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía and a coauthor on the paper says.

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