NASA Space Place – Is Proxima Centauri’s ‘Earth-like’ Planet Actually Like Earth At All?

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. NASA Space Place has been providing general audience articles for quite some time that are freely available for download and republishing. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting in October, 2016.

By Dr. Ethan Siegel

2013february2_spaceplaceJust 25 years ago, scientists didn’t know if any stars—other than our own sun, of course—had planets orbiting around them. Yet they knew with certainty that gravity from massive planets caused the sun to move around our solar system’s center of mass. Therefore, they reasoned that other stars would have periodic changes to their motions if they, too, had planets.

This change in motion first led to the detection of planets around pulsars in 1991, thanks to the change in pulsar timing it caused. Then, finally, in 1995 the first exoplanet around a normal star, 51 Pegasi b, was discovered via the “stellar wobble” of its parent star. Since that time, over 3000 exoplanets have been confirmed, most of which were first discovered by NASA’s Kepler mission using the transit method. These transits only work if a solar system is fortuitously aligned to our perspective; nevertheless, we now know that planets—even rocky planets at the right distance for liquid water on their surface—are quite common in the Milky Way.

On August 24, 2016, scientists announced that the stellar wobble of Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our sun, indicated the existence of an exoplanet. At just 4.24 light years away, this planet orbits its red dwarf star in just 11 days, with a lower limit to its mass of just 1.3 Earths. If verified, this would bring the number of Earth-like planets found in their star’s habitable zones up to 22, with ‘Proxima b‘ being the closest one. Just based on what we’ve seen so far, if this planet is real and has 130 percent the mass of Earth, we can already infer the following:

* It receives 70 percent of the sunlight incident on Earth, giving it the right temperature for liquid water on its surface, assuming an Earth-like atmosphere.

* It should have a radius approximately 10 percent larger than our own planet’s, assuming it is made of similar elements.

* It is plausible that the planet would be tidally locked to its star, implying a permanent ‘light side’ and a permanent ‘dark side’.

* And if so, then seasons on this world are determined by the orbit’s ellipticity, not by axial tilt.

Yet the unknowns are tremendous. Proxima Centauri emits considerably less ultraviolet light than a star like the sun; can life begin without that? Solar flares and winds are much greater around this world; have they stripped away the atmosphere entirely? Is the far side permanently frozen, or do winds allow possible life there? Is the near side baked and barren, leaving only the ‘ring’ at the edge potentially habitable?

Proxima b is a vastly different world from Earth, and could range anywhere from actually inhabited to completely unsuitable for any form of life. As 30m-class telescopes and the next generation of space observatories come online, we just may find out!

Looking to teach kids about exoplanet discovery? NASA Space Place explains stellar wobble and how this phenomenon can help scientists find exoplanets:

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.


Caption: An artist’s conception of the exoplanet Kepler-452b (R), a possible candidate for Earth 2.0, as compared with Earth (L). Image credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle.

About NASA Space Place

With articles, activities, crafts, games, and lesson plans, NASA Space Place encourages everyone to get excited about science and technology. Visit (facebook|twitter) to explore space and Earth science!

CNYO Observing Log: Transit Of Mercury, 10 May 2016

Poster’s Note: A post from mid-May of this year never made it to the website. Posting now for the 2016 observing record.

Greetings, fellow astrophiles!

The real-time global observatory that is the internet has made available to everyone, all the time, every particular astronomical event that occurs anywhere. That said, it’s always more fun to be able to turn the computer off and point a telescope to the sky to see something with your own eyes.

2016may12_Mercury_transitOur side of the planet was treated to one of the great joys of terrestrial observing – a transit of an interior (to us, anyway) planet across the face of our closest star, the Sun. The downtown Syacuse crowd for the Venus Transit in 2012 peaked at close to 350 people (far larger than the 2006 transit crowd of 10!) and was one of the best documented astronomical events in CNY thanks to local news reporters. The Transit of Mercury this past Monday, May 10th was comfortably smaller, perhaps proportional to the significantly smaller black spot that Mercury makes as it passes across the Sun. A wealth of access to internet and space science resources, however, has left some excellent lasting records of the event for us to enjoy (such as the picture at right, courtesy of Bob Piekiel. Click for a larger view).

2016may12_20308482_bob_largeWith the usual thanks to Glenn Coin at for promoting astronomy events here in CNY (and for taking the pic at right of Bob in action, click for a larger view), local folks were made aware of the Syracuse and neighboring sessions (see link). Schenectady, Hamburg, Rochester, Binghamton (thanks to our friends at Kopernik Observatory), and Marcellus (thanks to Bob Piekiel) were all on the docket. Those stuck at the office were made aware of viewing opportunities online thanks to an Associated Press post at as well (see link).

Glenn Coin took the trek out to Marcellus for Bob Piekiel’s session. His write-up can be found at:

Bob Piekiel reported the following:

Chris [Schuck, fellow CNYO-er] and I kept them busy at the transit program this morning. Lots of folks mulling around with questions, cell phone cameras, and non-stop desires to see the view every few minutes. Skies were near perfect, with only a few clouds. Also, got some nice views of Venus, only 8° from the sun. Venus is so far away it is only 11 arc-seconds in size, compared to Mercury’s 10 arc-seconds. They both look about the same size in the scope, but one is white, the other was black!

Freshly displaced to Rochester, I enjoyed the start of the transit from Farash Observatory, home of the Astronomy Section of the Rochester Academy of Sciences.


A panorama of Farash Observatory (and deformed Coronado). Click for a larger view.

2016may12_davedaveI arrived at Farash Observatory with my Coronado PST in tow (in a small plastic box, that is) around 7:00 a.m. in time to set up, chit-chat with two Dave’s (manning the live stream in the image at right), Doug, and Bob, and catch the very start of the transit (by dumb luck at that. I started observing a minute before just to get things lined up and zoomed in). All were thrilled to see Mercury begin to transit at the same point that a bright prominence had grown (I overheard someone say “looks like Mercury’s got a tail”). ASRAS provided live streaming of the event on youtube through a CaK on the Farash grounds, then the dozen-or-so folks there early cycled through everyone else’s scopes for varying H-alpha and white light views of the transit. The transit through a solar-safe 16” Cave is quite impressive(!), with Sunspot 2542 visible below Mercury (below in the eyepiece and the flipped-around view the Newtonian scopes provide). Once home, I did what the majority of us were doing – checking NASA streams and the local club feeds for more sights until the transit’s end at about 2:42 p.m.

My own poor attempt at astrophotography (with an iPhone 6s and through the ASRAS 16″ Cave) is shown below, including a slightly smudged Mercury at upper right and Sunspot 2542 at lower right. For proper orientation, see the official NASA SOHO image of the Sun at its image repository (link here).


163186109.kpdILVVp.mercury_transit_4A few others with a bit more patience (and a bit more money) really made the transit memorable with some fantastic movies. One .gif passed around on Facebook is shown at right from Tom Polakis using a Lunt 100 (click for a larger view) that shows the tail end of the transit. This is the kind of stuff amateurs can do from their backyard with a good scope and a decent camera (wait for the 4.2 MB .gif to load. It is definitely worth it)!

On the other hand, those with a much larger budget can put telescopes into space and produce the following video – courtesy of NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). Collective thanks to all for their tax dollars in bringing images like this to the masses.

Now we’re talkin’.

For those interested in taking in a more unobstructed view of the Sun, the next scheduled solar observing sessions in the Syracuse area are also being provided courtesy of Bob Piekiel and his considerable solar scope collection. The first is August 13/14 (Sat/Sun) at Clark Reservation, then August 27/28 (Sat/Sun) at Baltimore Woods.

We hope you don’t wait until another transit to take in some proper solar viewing!

TACNY Junior Cafe Scientifique: “What Do Rockets And Steamboats Have In Common? See It Through Computational Fluid Dynamics”

Saturday – October 15, 9:30-11:00am

Please RSVP to

Milton J Rubenstein Museum of Science & Technology – Syracuse, NY

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Scott D. Reynolds, MS, PE, M/E Engineering, and Robert Morris, Partner, R. H. Morris and Associates

Talk Overview

x-43a_hyper_-_x_mach_7_computational_fluid_dynamic_cfdComputational Fluid Dynamics, or CFD, is one of the most advanced disciplines of engineering. CFD modeling has “debunked” many misconceptions, e.g, it is false that planes fly because of lift (pressure created above and below the wing – Bernoulli’s principle). CFD modeling taught us that planes fly because they are virtually pulled up by a vortex forming on the wing top surface. Without CFD modeling, we would have limited improvements in plane design. CFD modeling can be applied to almost anything designed in the past and improve how the technology operates. We will use pictures and animations to illustrate CFD modeling of problems like the gas expansion of steam engines and rocket engines, designing greener and cleaner buildings, building more sterile operating rooms and drug manufacturing facilities, and to model building fires and even wind outside of buildings. Many of you will be using the fundamentals of fluid dynamics as competitors in today’s CNY Steamboat Challenge, and if you are not competing, please stay at the MOST to observe these fundamentals at play in the CNY Steamboat Challenge competition immediately after this talk!


Scott Reynolds has a BS in Mechanical and Industrial Engineering from Clarkson University, and an MS in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering from the University of Rochester. He worked for General Electric in the large gas turbine division, then for the Xerox Corporation in the Advanced Product Technology group, and then with IBM in the Advance Product Development group. In 1992, Scott started a consulting firm, Computer Aided Engineering Solutions (CAES), whose primary expertise was the application of CFD to real world problems in the building industry and other high tech areas. He joined M/E Engineering in 2006. Scott has been involved in over 700 CFD projects worldwide during the past 20 years. Scott has authored over 15 trade papers and articles, presented at over 30 conferences, workshops and university classroom settings, authored 7 patents and over 2 dozen invention disclosures while at Xerox and IBM. Scott is a member of the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science (AALAS)

Robert Morris has electrical engineering and chemical engineering degrees from University of Buffalo. Robert Morris is a partner of the office of R. H. Morris and Associates offering configuration management consultation for both laboratory planning and engineering collaborative planning national for chemical and biological research facilities and pharmaceutical facilities. Before retiring he was president and CEO of Flow Safe Inc., and prior to that, was a manager at Air Monitor Corporation. Earlier in his career, he worked for Union Carbide and Hughes Industries. Mr. Morris was the inventor of closed loop VAV; his patents formed the basis of this industry. His latest patent improvements to his earlier work provide the ultimate in fume hood safety and energy conservation. In 2004, Mr. Morris was made New Jersey’s Inventor of the Year for his work in fume hood design. The stable vortex fume hood is referenced in “Natural Capitalism” as one of the green technologies to help create the next green industrial revolution. Mr. Morris is a life member of the Instrument Society of America and of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.

TACNY Junior Cafe Scientifique

TACNY Junior Cafe Scientifique, a program for middle-school students founded in 2005, features discussions between scientists and students about topics in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics in an informal atmosphere and seeks to encourage students to consider careers in these areas. Students must be accompanied by an adult and can explore the MOST at no cost after the event.

Technology Alliance of Central New York

Founded in 1903 as the Technology Club of Syracuse, the nonprofit Technology Alliance of Central New York’s mission is to facilitate community awareness, appreciation, and education of technology; and to collaborate with like-minded organizations across Central New York.

For more information about TACNY, visit