Proxima b: la planète la plus proche de la Terre jamais découverte

Des scientifiques, dont un français, ont découvert une planète orbitant autour de Proxima du Centaure, l’étoile la plus proche du Soleil. Rocheuse, d’une taille comparable à celle de la Terre, elle est située dans la zone habitable, là où l’eau liquide peut exister en surface… Et donc la vie.

C’est, par définition, l’exoplanète la plus proche de nous jamais découverte. Et pour cause: Proxima b tourne autour de Proxima du Centaure, l’étoile la plus proche du Soleil, qui se situe à « seulement » 4,2 années-lumière d’ici.

Mieux, cette exoplanète, découverte par une équipe internationale de chercheurs -dont un français-, est très probablement rocheuse, comme la Terre. Et sa masse serait comparable à celle de notre planète -environ 1,3 fois plus grosse. Surtout, elle se trouve dans la zone habitable de son étoile, c’est-à-dire là où la présence d’eau liquide à la surface est possible, affirment les scientifiques dans la revue Science.

Son existence confirmée après 2 ans de recherches

Les chercheurs ont en effet découvert que cette exoplanète orbite à 7 millions de kilomètres de son étoile, soit 20 fois plus près que la Terre ne l’est du Soleil. L’exoplanète effectue donc une rotation complète autour de son étoile en 11,2 jours, contre 365 pour la Terre et 87 pour Mercure, la planète la plus proche de notre Soleil.

Mais comme Proxima du Centaure n’est qu’une simple naine rouge, un type d’étoile plus petite, moins chaude et moins brillante que notre Soleil, Proxima b se situe bien dans la fameuse « zone habitable », là où la température est comparable à celle de la Terre. En fonction des différentes hypothèses, la température pourrait être situé entre -30°C et 30°C, ont précisé les chercheurs lors d’une conférence de presse, rapporte Le Huff Post.

Une planète potentiellement favorable à la vie

Les résultats publiés dans Nature ont été approfondis par deux autres équipes d’astrophysiciens et planétologues, en majorité français, issues du CNRS. Selon eux, si les radiations de Proxima du Centaure risquent d’avoir érodé les gaz présents sur Proxima b, il est possible qu’une atmosphère et de l’eau aient tout de même perduré.

Sous certaines conditions, encore hypothétiques, la planète pourrait même héberger de l’eau liquide à sa surface et donc être potentiellement propice à la vie, affirment les scientifiques dans deux études accessibles en ligne.

La première explique que si la planète se trouve bien aujourd’hui dans la zone habitable, là où des océans peuvent exister en surface, cela n’a pas toujours été le cas. Au début de son histoire, Proxima du Centaure était beaucoup plus brillante. L’eau ne pouvait donc pas exister à l’état liquide à la surface de sa planète puisque vaporisée en une épaisse atmosphère. Mais la planète pourrait, aujourd’hui, posséder une atmosphère épaisse et des océans. En fait, tout dépend de la quantité d’eau et de gaz dont elle a hérité lors de sa formation, indiquent les scientifiques.

La planète bientôt observable grâce à un nouveau télescope

La seconde étude est consacrée aux climats possibles de Proxima b, en admettant que la planète possède encore une atmosphère. Selon les nombreuses simulations effectuées par les chercheurs français, l’eau liquide pourrait être présente sur toute la surface de la planète ou seulement dans les régions froides.

Ils ont également préparé des modèles pour des observations futures, qui seront menées avec E-ELT, en construction au Chili. Ce télescope de 39 mètres de diamètre devrait permettre aux scientifiques de « voir » la planète. Ces observations permettront de déterminer, une bonne fois pour toute, si Proxima b possède ou non de l’eau, une atmosphère et un climat habitable… Et pourquoi pas la vie.


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