European astronomers yesterday announced the discovery of an Earth size planet orbiting one of the stars in Alpha Centauri. Alpha Centauri is the nearest star system to the Earth, and the famed retirement home in the original Star Trek series of Zefram Cochrane, inventor of the warp drive. The planet was detected using the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planetary Search (HARPS) instrument on the 3.6-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile.
Alpha Centauri is one of the brightest stars in the southern sky and is only 1.3 parsecs or 4.3 light-years away. The Alpha Centauri system is a tertiary star system. That is, there are two Sun-like stars (Alpha Centauri A and B), and a smaller red star (Proxima Centauri).
The HARPS instrument detected planets by plotting tiny wobbles in a stars motion caused by the passage of a planet orbiting around the star. The wobble effect of the planet in Alpha Centauri is minute, causing the star to move back and forth no more than 51 centimetres per second (1.8 km/hour), about the speed of a baby crawling. This is the highest precision ever achieved using this method.
“This is the first planet with a mass similar to Earth ever found around a star like the Sun. Its orbit is very close to its star and it must be much too hot for life as we know it,” adds Stéphane Udry (Geneva Observatory), a co-author of the paper and member of the team, “but it may well be just one planet in a system of several. Our other HARPS results, and new findings from Kepler, both show clearly that the majority of low-mass planets are found in such systems.”
“This result represents a major step towards the detection of a twin Earth in the immediate vicinity of the Sun. We live in exciting times!” concludes Xavier Dumusque.
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