Space
4:49 pm
Wed October 17, 2012

Scientist Find Nearest Planet Outside Solar System

Originally published on Fri October 19, 2012 2:37 pm

Scientists say they have detected the nearest planet outside of our solar system, an alien world about the size of Earth that's orbiting a star called Alpha Centauri B.

Imaginary planets in the Alpha Centauri star system have been a staple of science fiction for decades. That's because the three stars in this system—Alpha Centauri A, B, and C—are only about four light years from our Sun. That's far away, but it's still closer than everything else beyond our solar system, so Alpha Centauri has long been a tempting destination for storytellers who dream of interstellar travel.

Now, in the journal Nature, scientists say they've detected the first real planet in this star system.

For more than four years, a team of European astronomers used a telescope in Chile to make observations of Alpha Centauri B. They saw the star make a tell-tale wobble that meant a planet's gravity was tugging on the star.

The newly detected planet has a mass that's similar to that of Earth, but it zips around its star once every 3.2 days. It's so close to its star that its surface might be made of super hot molten rock, more than 2000 degrees Fahrenheit.

It's not the kind of place that looks likely to support life as we know it, researchers say, but systems with a planet like this one often have more planets orbiting farther away from the star.

"I think that the prospects are excellent for finding further planets in this system," says Greg Laughlin, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Santa Cruz who spoke during a press conference on the new discovery.

He notes that Alpha Centauri is a nearby, well-known star system that's practically a household name. "To find out that planet formation did occur there is just extraordinarily exciting," says Laughlin.

Scientists have made confirmed discoveries of more than 800 planets orbiting distant stars in recent years, but this is the closest neighbor ever detected outside of our solar system.

The find has thrilled planetary science experts like Marc Kuchner, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. He is most excited about the possibility of someday sending a probe to visit planets found in Alpha Centauri.

"Inside every astronomer is a space cadet, and this is the place to go," says Kuchner. "This is the destination that everyone talks about in the interstellar travel discussions."

With today's technology, going to this 'nearby' neighbor would take thousands of years.

But Laughlin says that if a planet was discovered in the so-called habitable zone of an Alpha Centauri star, where conditions might be right for liquid water or maybe even life, there might be a groundswell of popular support for the development of new, exotic forms of propulsion that might get a spacecraft there much faster.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In recent years, scientists have found hundreds of planets orbiting distant stars. Now they've discovered a planet whizzing around a star that's one of our closest neighbors. It's a star known as Alpha Centauri B. And the planet is the nearest ever spotted outside our solar system, as NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: If you are going to imagine interstellar travel, the star system called Alpha Centauri would be your first stop. Its three stars, Alpha Centauri A, B and C, are only around four light-years from our sun. That's far, far away, but it's still closer than everything else beyond our solar system. And that's why imaginary planets in Alpha Centauri are a staple of science fiction.

Now, in the journal Nature, scientists say they've detected the first real planet there. A team of European astronomers used a telescope in Chile to closely observe Alpha Centauri B. They saw it make a tell-tale wobble, that meant a planet's gravity was tugging on the star. Greg Laughlin is an astrophysicist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He says Alpha Centauri is so well-known, it's practically a household name.

DR. GREGORY LAUGHLIN: And to find out that the planet formation did occur there, it's just extraordinarily exciting.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The newly detected planet has a mass that's similar to Earth, but it zips around its star once every three days. It's so close to its star that its surface might be made of super hot molten rock, more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. It doesn't seem like a great place to live, but Laughlin says systems with a planet like this one often have more planets orbiting farther away from the star.

LAUGHLIN: I think that the prospects are excellent for finding further planets in this system.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Perhaps even one in the so-called habitable zone, at a distance from the star where conditions might be right for liquid water and maybe even life.

DR. MARC KUCHNER: I would not be surprised if there were a whole system of planets around Alpha Cen.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Marc Kuchner is an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. He's most excited about the idea of sending a probe to visit planets found in Alpha Centauri.

KUCHNER: Inside every astronomer is a space cadet and this is the place to go. This is the destination that everyone talks about in the interstellar travel discussions.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Even though with today's technology, going to this nearby neighbor would take thousands of years. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.