“To consider the Earth as the only populated world in infinite space is as absurd as to assert that in an entire field sown with millet, only one grain will grow.” -Metrodorus of Chios
Later tonight, the European Southern Observatory is expected to make an announcement, and the smart money is on the discovery of an Earth-like planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to our Sun. As incredibly exciting as this news is, however, it’s important to keep in mind that “Earth-like,” to an astronomer, means something very different than what we think of as “actually like Earth.”
The Earth (L) in visible light, compared with Venus (R) in infrared light. While Earth’s reflectivity will vary over time, Venus’ will remain constant. Image credit: NASA/MODIS (L), ISIS/JAXA (R), stitching by E. Siegel.
The only information we can glean from our present observations is the planet’s mass, size and orbit around a star. This is enough to tell us some of its properties, including a few ways (like tidal locking) that are quite different from Earth, but questions about its atmosphere, surface temperature, magnetic field and much more remain unanswered.
An illustration of a panet around a red dwarf star. ...