This Planet Just Outside Our Solar System Is 'Potentially Habitable' : The Two-Way It's not exactly close — 25 trillion miles from Earth, say the scientists who spotted it. But that might be near enough for further exploration. It's about Earth's size, with mild temperatures.
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This Planet Just Outside Our Solar System Is 'Potentially Habitable'

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This Planet Just Outside Our Solar System Is 'Potentially Habitable'

This Planet Just Outside Our Solar System Is 'Potentially Habitable'

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Scientists say they have found the closest place outside of our solar system that could conceivably support life. It's a planet that orbits the star nearest to our sun. There's a chance it might have cozy temperatures and even water. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports on what we know about this nearby alien world.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The closest star to our solar system is a red dwarf called Proxima Centauri. It's so faint you can't see it with the naked eye, but it's only about four light years away. That's 25 trillion miles. Still, it's our next-door neighbor, and now researchers say this star has a very interesting planet.

GUILLEM ANGLADA ESCUDE: We are talking about a planet that has very similar properties to Earth.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's Guillem Anglada Escude, who spoke to me by Skype. He's an astronomer at Queen Mary University of London. He says if you could stand on this planet's surface, the sky would look alien.

ESCUDE: It would be kind of like a late autumn sunset coloring. Everything would be orangeish (ph) - not red, just orangeish.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The planet is a bit more massive than Earth and probably rocky. It orbits its dim star once every 11 days. It's possible that the temperatures on this planet could be mild enough for any water to be liquid.

Anglada Escude led the team that detected the planet by watching how its gravity made its star wobble. The researchers describe their work in the journal Nature. He says there's a lot of excitement about a potentially habitable planet that is so close.

ESCUDE: There's a sense of proximity, of finding something just out of reach that it's tantalizing to people.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Scientists now know that planets around other stars are common. They've already discovered a bunch of other possibly habitable worlds. But the nearness of this one will make it easier to do follow-up studies and maybe even get a picture of the planet to see if it has an atmosphere or signs of life.

Edward Guinan is an astronomer at Villanova University. I spoke to him over Skype. He says when he first learned of this new planet a couple of months ago, he doubted it could be the kind of place life could call home because it's so close to its red dwarf star and all the nasty stuff the star spews out, like X-ray radiation.

EDWARD GUINAN: I was dubious that it could work out to be habitable.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But then Guinan and some colleagues analyzed the possibilities and got a pleasant surprise.

GUINAN: There's a pathway for this planet to retain its water and to have even oceans.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It's no sure thing. It really depends on the history of this planet and its host star. He puts the chances that it could be capable of supporting life at maybe 25 percent. And even then, that doesn't necessarily mean it would be inhabited. Still, he says...

GUINAN: To have the nearest star with a possibly habitable Earth-size planet is terrific. It's wonderful. I'm just really excited.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He thinks a future trip to go visit is not out of the question. Even with today's technology, he says a probe could get there in about half a century. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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