Home > Uncategorized > Earth-size exoplanet found in Alpha Centauri, nearest star system to Earth

Earth-size exoplanet found in Alpha Centauri, nearest star system to Earth

There’s a new planet in the stellar neighborhood next door.

Astronomers said this week that the exoplanet, which is in the triple-star Alpha Centauri system, has a mass comparable to that of Earth. It is the closest exoplanet to Earth yet discovered.

Yale University astronomer Debra Fischer told the New York Times that the find is “the story of the decade.”

“I’d bet $100 that there are other planets that are there as well,” she is quoted as saying in the story published in the Times’ Oct. 16 edition.

While the newly-discovered exoplanet is about the same size as Earth, it would not be a comfortable place for human beings. The planet orbits Alpha Centauri-B, one of the Alpha Centauri system’s three suns, at a distance of about six million kilometers.

That is so close that its surface temperature would exceed 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

By comparison, Mercury is about 46 million kilometers from the Sun at its perihelion. The closest planet to the Sun, the daytime surface temperature on Mercury can exceed 800 degrees Fahrenheit.

Astronomers used a technique that involves measuring slight changes in the star’s motion caused by the gravitational pull of an object orbiting the star.

The newly-discovered exoplanet causes only a tiny wobble in the motion of Alpha Centauri-B. According to a press release issued by the European Southern Observatory, the star’s movement is altered by only about 51 centimeters per second.

“Our observations extended over more than four years using the HARPS instrument and have revealed a tiny, but real, signal from a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B every 3.2 days,” Xavier Dumusque, a researcher at Geneva Observatory in Switzerland and Centro de Astrofisica da Universidade do Porto in Portugal and the lead author of the paper, said. “It’s an extraordinary discovery and it has pushed our technique to the limit.”

HARPS refers to the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher, a spectrograph attached to the 3.6 meter telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

Alpha Centauri is located 4.3 light years, or about 25.6 trillion miles, from Earth – a distance that is about 600,000 times farther from our planet than is the Sun.

That means it would not be easy to travel to the newly-discovered planet.

If a spaceship traveling at the maximum velocity achieved by the space shuttles during their missions in Earth orbit, a journey to the Alpha Centauri system would take approximately 165,000 years to complete.

The significance of the planet isn’t limited to its size relative to Earth. It is also the lightest exoplanet among the more than 800 confirmed so far.

Astronomers announced the find this week in an article published in the prestigious journal Nature.Image

Artist’s conception courtesy European Southern Observatory, L. Calcada, Nick Risinger.

  1. October 20, 2012 at 1:18 pm

    Sounds like a good place to send our politicians!! 😉

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