European astronomers have discovered a planet with about the mass of the Earth orbiting a star in the Alpha Centauri system—the nearest to Earth. It is also the lightest exoplanet ever discovered around a star like the Sun. The planet was detected using the HARPS instrument on the 3.6-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. The results will appear online in the journal Nature on 17 October 2012.
This video shows an imaginary journey from Earth to the Alpha Centauri system. As we leave the Solar System we see the familiar constellation figures including the Southern Cross (Crux) and the bright stars Alpha and Beta Centauri. As we approach Alpha Centauri we pass a faint red star, this is Proxima Centauri, the closest star to Earth and the faintest component of a triple star system. The final part shows the bright double star Alpha Centauri A and B with the Sun visible in the background.
Alpha Centauri is one of the brightest stars in the southern skies and is the nearest stellar system to our Solar System—only 4.3 light-years away. It is actually a triple star—a system consisting of two stars similar to the Sun orbiting close to each other, designated Alpha Centauri A and B, and a more distant and faint red component known as Proxima Centauri. Since the nineteenth century astronomers have speculated about planets orbiting these bodies, the closest possible abodes for life beyond the Solar System, but searches of increasing precision had revealed nothing. Until now.
“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,” says Xavier Dumusque (Geneva Observatory, Switzerland and Centro de Astrofisica da Universidade do Porto, Portugal), lead author of the paper. “It’s an extraordinary discovery and it has pushed our technique to the limit!” Via Earth-sized planet found just outside solar system.