Discovered: Earth Sized Planet Orbiting Alpha Centauri

Zephram Cochrane Where are You?
(credit ESO)

Astronomers using the HARPS instrument at the European Southern Observatory in Chile have announced the discovery of a rocky, Earth sized planet in a close orbit around Alpha Centauri B, Earth’s nearest neighboring star system, which actually consists of three stars, Alpha Centauri A and B, which are similar to our own sun, as well as  Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf.

The planet which was discovered in very close orbit of only 3.2 days most likely makes our own Mercury look like an oasis by comparison, but the find is no less significant, and could be indicative of other Earth sized rocky planets in the complex trinary system as well.

The find, which was made by a land base telescope,  comes only days after NASA announced that the highly successful Kepler space telescope mission is in jeopardy due to problems with a reaction wheel locking up. If Kepler loses another wheel, it will not  be able to maintain the precise alignment needed to function correctly, and would have to be shut down.

Two other proposed space based planet searching telescopes, the Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF) and Space Based Interferometry (SIMS) were cancelled in recent years due to budget pressures, in part victims to the hugely expensive and massively over budget James Webb Space Telescope. If all goes well however, the JWST  which was initially designed to study the light from the earliest galaxies, and the formation of planetary systems, could also be used to specifically analyze  the composition of planets orbiting systems relatively close to Earth, like Alpha Centauri.

It is a high stakes approach however,  and if there is a technical problem with deploying the fiendishly complicated infrared observatory,  we may very well lose out on the better part of two decades of potential research.  Given the potential to fundamentally change our understanding of the presence of Earth like planets in the relative neighborhood, and thus the potential for life all around us, it seems unfortunate that we not taken the more diverse path to this field of study.

On an altogether different note, with yet another piece of the Trek universe seeming to fall into place, we have to ask the question Zefram Cochrane, where are you?  We need that warp drive.

“Of Alpha Centauri”
(Credit: Star Trek TOS)

Posted in: NASA, Space Science

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