It seems another star system is making the news recently. And much like Gliese 581, the subject is the discovery of a planet that is said to be Earth-like in orientation. Located in Alpha Centauri, a star system just 4.3 light years from our Solar System, this exoplanet is the closest discovery yet to be made by scientists and astronomers.
Those with a penchant for science fiction will be immediately familiar with the name Alpha Centauri. As the closest star system to our own, it has been mentioned and used as the setting for countless science fiction franchises. Star Trek, Transformers, and most recently, Avatar have made use of this binary system and its system of planets. But up until now, speculations as to its ability to actually support life (at least as we know it) have been just that.
Officially, the planet is known as Alpha Centauri Bb, in that it is the second observable planet that orbits Alpha Centauri B, the larger of the stars in the binary system. It took a research team nearly four years to classify the planet and determine that it boasted a mass similar to that of Earth’s. According to Xavier Dumusque, the lead author of the planet-discovering study: “This result represents a major step towards the detection of a twin Earth in the immediate vicinity of the sun.”
But of course, there’s a snag, at least as far as colonization would be involved. According to the same research team, Alpha Centauri Bb is closer to its host star than Mercury is to our Sun, and they estimate that surface temperatures average around 1200 degrees Celsius (2192 Fahrenheit). Forget Pandora, can you say Crematoria? If humans were ever to set foot on this world, it would only be because of terraforming so radical that it completely altered the nature of the planet. Still, it is an exciting find, and is another step along the road to locating nearby exoplanets that humanity might someday call home.
In the meantime, check out this video from the European Southern Observatory. It’s like Google Earth meets the Milky Way Galaxy – Google Galaxy! I like that!