Life-Supporting Planet May Exist in the Star System Closest to Earth

If it's real, we may one day visit another life-supporting planet within a single human lifespan.
Brad Bergan
The Very Large Telescope array spotted the object.hmiller61615 / Flickr

Astronomers have spotted what could be a new life-supporting planet orbiting one of the closest neighboring stars to our solar system, according to a new study published in the journal Nature.

Scientists may have found a life-supporting planet in the solar system closest to Earth

Researchers glimpsed signs of the promising bright dot near Alpha Centauri A — a binary pair of stars orbiting one another at such close proximity that they look like only one to the naked eye — in the Centaurus constellation.

Located 4.37 light-years away, the binary star system of Alpha Centauri could host a planet capable of supporting life. But since this discovery is so recent, scientists are only calling it a "planet candidate" — since it could simply be streaks of space dust, asteroids, or even a glitch in the telescopic equipment.

Head of 'Breakthrough Starshot' funded new possible discovery

"We detected something," said Chief Engineer Pete Klupar of the Breakthrough Initiatives, which are a collection of space-oriented projects funded by Yuri Milner — a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who is also head of an interstellar project called Breakthrough Starshot. "It could be an artifact in the machine or it could be a planet, or it could be asteroids or dust."

The international team of interstellar researchers studied the closest star to Earth as part of an experiment called "New Earths in the Alpha Centauri Region" — which receives funding from the Breakthrough watch, another project aiming to discover and analyze Earth-sized rocky planets near Alpha Centauri, in addition to other nearby stars.

Research team used new device 'like holding thumb to the sun'

In their search for planets near Alpha Centauri A, the astronomers used the Very Large Telescope (VLT) array, which the European Southern Observatory operates from Cerro Paranal in Chile's Atacama Desert. The researchers' potential discovery was helped via a new coronagraph on the instrument that blots out the light from Alpha Centauri, reducing the "glare" of the binary pair and leaving only orbiting bodies within view.

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Klupar compares the new coronagraph to the more relatable procedure of blocking the sun with your thumb at arm's reach. In doing this with the VLT array, the astronomers achieved new heights of sensitivity with which to scan for planets outside of our solar system.

"We're trying to see a flashlight right next to a lighthouse," explained Klupar, in a report from The Guardian.

Possible planet orbits within Alpha Centauri's habitable zone

In the Nature Communications study, the research team analyzed infrared observations spanning 100 hours in May and June 2019, until they uncovered the bright dot that defied simple explanation. If the object is confirmed as a real planet, this could become the first directly-imaged exoplanet orbiting a star this close to Earth.

"A lot of people say planets can't form in this kind of binary and that's one reason we are cautious about claiming it is actually a planet," said Klupar. "But if it is, it would be about the size of Neptune."

At 4.37 light-years from Earth, nuclear pulse propulsion concepts like Freeman Dyson's Orion Project could reach Alpha Centauri within roughly 85 years — not accounting for acceleration and deceleration. And, since the planet would lie within its host star's habitable zone — where temperatures may enable the existence of liquid water — it might even support life-sustaining environments.