Astronomers at the European Southern Observatory in the Atacama desert, Chile, have discovered what could be a planet in one of Earth’s closest star systems, Alpha Centauri A.
This “planet candidate”, as described by scientists as it could very well be a strip of dust, a foreign asteroid, or even a glitch in the system, was detected from the analysis of 100s of hours of data received via the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in May and June 2019.
Alpha Centauri A
Distanced at 4.37 light-years (1.34 parsecs) from the Earth’s solar system, the Alpha Centauri is considered the closest star system to our solar system. This triple star system is made up of three stars: α Centauri A, also known as Rigil Kentaurus; α Centauri B, also known as Toliman; and α Centauri C, also known as Proxima Centauri.
Alpha Centauri A and B have properties similar to that of our sun and, together, they form the binary pair known as Alpha Centauri AB. This pair orbits the same center of gravity every 80 years and the estimated distance between them is 23 Astronomical Units — look at it as almost the distance between the Sun and Uranus.
In August 2016, astronomers announced that an Earth-sized planet was discovered orbiting Proxima Centauri. This new planet named Proxima b is about 1.3 times larger than Earth and researchers believed it to be rocky.
Proxima b is within the star’s habitable zone as it lies 4.7 million miles from the host star. The exoplanet was observed to take 11.2 Earth days to complete a revolution and it was tidally locked (it only displays the same face to its host star).
Almost five years later, a new discovery has been made.
The New Discovery
“We detected something,” Peter Klupar said. The chief engineer of the Breakthrough Initiatives added that it might be an artefact in the machine or a planet, it was too early to confirm. This new discovery was aided by a new coronagraph on the instrument which helped to channel out the light from Alpha Centauri. This made it easy to spot revolving bodies.
“We’re trying to see a flashlight right next to a lighthouse,” Klupar had explained. He illustrated the technique of the coronagraph to the blocking of the sun with a thumb at arm’s reach. The team detailed in Nature Communications their experience throughout the discovery. They had observed infrared signals of a white dot for 100 hours in May and June 2019, something they were not able to explain.
The excitement about this new discovery stems from the fact that if it is, in fact, a planet, then there is a possibility of it being habitable.
Kuplar hinted that the discovery was estimated to be the size of Neptune and it lay in the star’s habitable zone, where temperatures allowed the formation of water.
The team at Chile plans to observe the discovery later this year and if this candidate planet moves to the predicted position, then we could have another neighbor that is 4.37 light-years away. While this distance is currently too extreme for human transportation, who knows; with future breakthroughs in space exploration, it could just be a stone’s throw away!
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News Source: The Guardian
Headline: Astronomers’ hopes raised by glimpse of possible new planet