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Top image: Artist’s impression of the planet orbiting Proxima Centauri

4.22 lightyears – or 40 trillion kilometres – from Earth is Proxima b, an exoplanet located within the habitable zone of its parent star Proxima Centauri. Orbiting every eleven days, the planet’s distance from its star suggests a temperature suitable for liquid water to exist on its rocky and terrestrial surface.

After around sixteen years of analysing telescopic recordings of the planet’s star, the international collaborative team of astronomers who discovered Proxima b, led by Dr Guillem Anglada Escudé at Queen Mary University in London, believe they may have found the closest possible environment for life outside our own Solar System.

Artist's impression of the planet orbiting Proxima Centauri. Credits: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Alex James Taylor: Can you tell me about the collaborative team you lead that discovered Proxima b?
Dr Guillem Anglada Escudé: This collaboration started to grow when my colleague Mikko Tuomi – who is a Finnish applied mathematician but works in Hertfordshire – and I started to re-analyse public research released by the European Southern Observatory that looked at many different stars. Some of the stars were showing evidence of signals that indicate the presence of a planet. We followed up on some of those stars, and then brought together more collaborators to follow up with other expertise and instruments.

Alex: Is it quite a tight community then, do you tend to know other scientists working in similar fields?
Guillem: In science, we all work at different institutions, either separately or in very small groups. But then you go to conferences and have collaborations, so you know more or less what they can do and what they can provide. Of course, you also have to know that you can work with these people – I’m very happy with my collaborators, we work well as a team.

Alex: In terms of Proxima b, what is it you look for when you are sieving through this data and hoping to discover a planet?
Guillem: The method that we use for Proxima b is called the Doppler technique. There’s no way to see the planet with the current technology we have because it’s very close to the star and therefore very faint compared to it. So what we have to do is look at the star and at how it is moving, if there is a planet around the star; the interaction between the two makes the star move a tiny bit through the planet’s orbit pull. This motion repeats at every orbital period of the planet, it’s the same with the Sun and the Earth. It’s a very small motion, and if this motion repeats, that tells us there is a planet around the star.

Alex: Proxima b is special because it’s in the habitable zone of its star, which means that it has the potential to hold liquid water. Is being in that habitable zone the only way you can measure whether that potential is there?
Guillem: Yes, that’s a necessary condition, to be the right distance from the star. That doesn’t necessarily mean the planet will have water, but at least it is at the right distance. There are many other planets that have been detected but they are typically too hot, because the closer the planet is to the star, the easier it is to detect them. The highlight of Proxima b is the combination of these things, firstly it is in the warm or habitable zone, and secondly it is the nearest star to the sun.

Alex: Technology as a whole has advanced incredibly over the last fifteen years or so, how does that affect your work as an astronomer?
Guillem: The type of equipment we use is pretty much the same, but the improvements in the last ten or so years are mainly down to the incredible speed of computers nowadays. This allows us to look at things in much more detail – for example instead of processing ten stars, we can now process 100,000 stars. This increase in computer power is the real breakthrough in astronomy in the last five or ten years.

“The highlight of Proxima b is the combination of these things, firstly it is in the warm or habitable zone, and secondly it is the nearest star to the sun.”

An infographic compares the orbit of the newfound exoplanet around Proxima Centauri (labeled "Proxima b") with the innermost solar system. ESO / M. Kornmesser / G. Coleman

Alex: Do different countries approach astronomy in different ways or is there a sort of universal approach towards the field?
Guillem: There are big differences, for example between the different countries we work with on Proxima b: we have people from the UK, Germany, Spain and the US. There are major differences in how they fund research in different places. The UK is known to have more of a strategy investing in people who bring expertise, more than building big things and funding them. That is more the German model, they tend to get one big group leader who builds a big team and gets a lot of funding and they’ll put money towards technology and machinery. So different strategies work well for different teams, and we need both in order to be efficient, not everyone has to be good at everything, but if we can split expertise and share our results, that works much better.

Alex: So how does the funding process work? Since you began, have you seen the funding process change a lot?
Guillem: The funding to do research mostly comes from the government. It’s become more difficult across all countries, especially considering there are many more people than before. Ten years ago, having a PhD was something that very few people would achieve, or even want, but now we have a lot more people doing PhDs. That’s also a structural problem because with many of these big projects, it’s very easy to hire temporary people, so that has been the model. When you are doing a research project you don’t have a lot of researchers that you hire in permanent positions, you basically hire postdoctoral researchers. It sounds good for the high level management, but it’s very rough because people are expendable in a sense, so that creates big problems.

Alex: That’s such a standard commercial sector problem, it’s strange to hear that it is also an issue in research. You assume that projects like this are run with a more longterm goal in mind.
Guillem: It’s exactly the same problem. There are very few management positions and then all the manpower comes from the postdoctoral and the PhDs.

Alex: I know some countries are quite secretive about their space research, going as far back as the Cold War space race between the US and Russia – is there still a lot of competition between countries?
Guillem: That’s a good question, if one of the countries or one of the powers – the US, Europe, China, Russia – if they can do it by themselves, they will. Most of the space business is not science, it’s industry and military, so they also want to do things themselves because there is revenue coming from that. But then look at the International Space Station, that’s good for everyone, and is done together to help everyone. Typically, all of these agencies are very private about their projects. An example is infrared detectors, which are produced by the US – you can buy them and use them but you cannot open the box and look into the electronics.

Alex: Oh wow.
Guillem: Yeah, so there is collaboration in assembling things, but the technologies are kept very private, especially in the US.

Alex: And I suppose that’s because a lot of the technology crosses over into the military as well.
Guillem: Yeah, I’m not even thinking about missiles or things like that, the real military power in space is to have surveillance and communications. These projects are highly secretive, we have no clue what they are doing, they are highly protected and there’s not much sharing there.

“There’s a new space age coming from the private sector, coming from the nouveau riche people, from technologists in Silicon Valley, and they are privately led rather than government-led. People want to go to space, irrespective of the governments…”

Alex: During the 60s when the space race was in full swing and space travel was beginning to develop, countries used it as a vanity project to prove that they were the most powerful and innovative superpower. Have you seen a shift away from this and towards a more collaborative community in recent years?
Guillem: One thing is the government, the other thing is the people. Scientists typically care about getting things done and in that sense we speak about things very openly. But the global space exploration effort is not really global at this point. Each power does its own thing. There’s a new space age coming from the private sector, coming from the nouveau riche people, from technologists in Silicon Valley, and they are privately led rather than government-led. People want to go to space, irrespective of the governments, so these are technical people, physicists and engineers, like Elon Musk in California. That’s kind of the new space age, we’ll see how long it lasts. There has been massive progress in the last three years actually. Ten years ago things were a bit dormant and boring, but things got a bit more exciting recently with the appearance of these new technologists.

Alex: Does the emergence of these these nouveau riche entrepreneurs like Elon Musk affect your job?
Guillem: Not day to day, but yes it affects me in the midterm. In the traditional model, they will say, “Oh that’s just noise, let them do it. The right way to do things is to plan many years ahead,” – that’s the European approach to things, just do things that work and don’t worry too much about trying to be clever. But I think there are chances of producing disruptive technologies from these new emerging organisations, it will not change from one year to the next, but in five years the picture can look very different. I’m very much against planning too far ahead with these sorts of things because it’s boring and the other thing is that you don’t know what will happen in ten years time, maybe someone will make a cheap way to go to the moon and we’ll have a moon colony by then. Who knows?

Alex: If something like that was going to happen, some big breakthrough, would you expect it to be from one of these private companies or from a government initiative?
Guillem: I think it’d be a private company but backed by a government. So at some point there will be a good launching system, in which Elon Musk seems to be leading the way, so maybe a country will invest in them and let them do it in their territory. I think the private sector will lead it and then it’s a matter of one government or public body willing to go into business, which is very difficult because governments tend to be very conservative in terms of science.

Alex: You previously spoke about there being an increase in people doing PhDs, so are you seeing a larger generation of researchers coming into the field?
Guillem: Yeah, there are more people, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that there are better people. There are people who are more gifted at certain things, but I don’t think the number has changed that much. So what we’ll have is a lot of highly trained people, there will not be a lot of geniuses there, but you will have the manpower to run big projects, which comes from people who have the ability to use computers and things like that. So this allows us to build bigger projects, but I’m not sure that the number of truly outstanding individuals has increased.

Alex: As we’re currently in this uncertain, unstable global situation right now with politics, climate change, terrorism and so on, have you found that people are more interested in astronomy and space exploration? Do you think it can be a source of escapism?
Guillem: I think the interest in space was there before the current situation developed, let’s say in the last five years. But I think that space exploration can bring people together, it gives us a joint purpose, instead of fighting each other we should be looking to learn and explore. Still, people have this vision of a utopia somewhere else, but that won’t save what we have here. We have to solve the issues on our own planet.

This interview originally appeared in HEROINE 6.

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