Earth-like planet near Alpha Centauri might be closest so far

15 Aug 2016

La Silla Observatory used by the ESO. Image via ESO/B. Tafreshi

An Earth-like planet may have been discovered in the Alpha Centauri star system – our solar system’s nearest neighbour – offering us a chance to see another planet like never before.

Not named yet, the planet orbits the star Proxima Centauri within the Alpha Centauri star system and, of much interest to astronomers, is the fact it is located just over four light years away.

By comparison, the previous best Earth-like planet candidate, dubbed Kepler 452-b, discovered last year, is located 1,400 light years away, far outside humanity’s hopes of ever reaching it.

Future Human

Formal announcement due within weeks

The discovery was made by the European Space Observatory (ESO), which plans to reveal further details on the planet as part of a major announcement towards the end of August.

Revealed by the German newspaper Der Spiegel, the planet is believed to exist within the ‘Goldilocks zone’ of the star system that could sustain a habitable environment for life.

This new planet could join only a handful of other planets deemed Earth-like, despite the discovery of thousands of exoplanets using the Kepler Space Telescope, and astronomers will now hope to analyse the planet’s location in further detail.

However, the discovery has yet to be corroborated by the international scientific community – as it has yet to be formally announced – but sources who spoke to the German newspaper said the discovery was made using the La Silla telescope in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

Alpha Centauri B

An artist’s impression of a planet orbiting the star Alpha Centauri B. Image via ESO/L. Calçada/Nick Risinger

Exciting news for Starshot programme

One of the sources within the ESO also revealed that the discovery of this new planet was difficult work for the astronomers, with the La Silla telescope being pushed to the “technically feasible limit of measurement”.

This potential discovery has come as welcome news to the Starshot programme proposed by Breakthrough Initiatives in April to launch a series of tiny spacecraft to Alpha Centauri at a speed of 20pc of the speed of light.

Taking just 20 years – a fraction of the time it would take a traditional spacecraft – Starshot spacecraft would be able to scientifically measure and photograph this planet if it does indeed exist.

Speaking to Universe Today, one of the people working on the Starshot programme, Prof Phillip Lubin, said: “The discovery of a possible planet around Proxima Centauri is very exciting.

“It makes the case of visiting nearby stellar systems even more compelling, though we know there are many exoplanets around other nearby stars and it is very likely that the Alpha Centauri system will also have planets.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic