Astronomers Might Have Found New Planet Around Star System Closest To Earth
Astronomers think they may have caught a glimpse of a previously undiscovered planet orbiting around Earth’s closest star system.
A bright dot spotted in the region of Alpha Centauri A is raising hopes that there may be planets far closer to our solar system than we know, but researchers looking into the ‘planetary candidate’ have stressed that this sighting alone is not enough to confirm a new discovery.
Alpha Centauri A is one of two stars in a binary system just 4.37 light years from Earth, which in the grand universal scheme of things is nothing more than a hop skip and a jump away, so it’s not surprising that even a tiny glimmer hope for a new planet has got astronomers excited.
The potential discovery, revealed last week in Nature Communications, was made as part of an ongoing global project called Breakthrough Watch which is attempting to uncover possible Earth-like planets around Alpha Centauri and other relatively close star systems.
The project, which is funded by Breakthrough Initiatives, used the Very Large Telescope in the European Southern Observatory in the Chilean desert to observe the potential planet, which was first spotted in May 2019.
There’s still a lot of work to be done before the team can be certain that what they spotted is actually a new planet, and researchers have warned that there are a raft of other possibilities that could send their hopes crashing back down.
Pete Klupar, chief engineer at Breakthrough Initiatives, told The Guardian that searching for planets in the Alpha Centauri system was like ‘trying to see a flashlight right next to a lighthouse,’ and was cautious about promising too much when it comes to the new discovery. ‘We detected something,’ he said. ‘It could be an artefact in the machine or it could be a planet, or it could be asteroids or dust.’
If the discovery was confirmed to be a new planet, it would be the first time a team has directly captured images of a planet outside our own solar system from here on Earth. Klupar says that based on the location and estimated size of the dot, any such planet would be around the size of Neptune, and would be in the star system’s ‘habitable zone’, meaning temperatures would be cool enough for liquid water to form.
While this bright dot might turn out to be nothing, its discovery just goes to show the possibilities that could be out there, hidden in the stars.
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