Exciting evidence has been put forth by a group of astronomers who propose the existence of a potentially habitable world orbiting Alpha Centauri, one of the nearest stars to Earth at a distance of no more than 4.37 light-years away.
Researchers suggest that the world, which is somewhere between Saturn and Neptune in terms of size, orbits its host star in the so-called habitable zone, a region around a star where water can exist in a liquid state.
Tantalizing evidence has been presented by a group of astronomers who says that one of our neighboring stars, Alpha Centauri A, located at an average distance of 4.37 light-years from Earth, may have its own exoplanet orbiting it in the so-called habitable zone.
The research, published in Nature Communications, presents results from Near Earths in the Alpha Cen Region (NEAR), a project led by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and Breakthrough Watch, an initiative that looks for potentially Earth-like planets around stars located not far from Earth.
Alpha Centauri and its potentially habitable world
Alpha Centauri is one of the closest star systems to Earth, consisting of three stars; Alpha Centauri A and B, all of which are Sun-like stars. These two alien suns are accompanied by a third star known as Proxima Centauri, which is located somewhat closer to us, at an average distance of just 4.24 light-years.
Proxima Centauri is of great interest to astronomers because, so far, we have found conclusive evidence of two exoplanets orbiting the red dwarf. One of these worlds, Proxima Centauri b, orbits the star in the so-called habitable zone, and astronomers even suggest that life as we know it may have developed on the surface of the not-so-distant world.
Although located in the habitable zone, researchers have found that Proxima b is likely tidally locked to its host star, which means that one side of the planet is perpetual light, while the other one in perpetual darkness. This, if true, would drastically reduce the habitability chances of Proxima b.
But Proxima b isn’t the main subject of this discovery. A planet not far from it is.
But whether the exciting data is, in fact, a planet remains to be seen.
What we know about the signal at Alpha Centauri
Using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) located in Chile, astronomers were able to spot the thermal imaging signal after observing Alpha Centauri for one hundred hours.
This signal was spotted thanks to NEAR, a mid-infrared coronagraph, which, as explained by Scientific American, is a specialized instrument designed to blot out the bulk of a star’s thermal glow at a tight wavelength of 10 microns.
This means that NEAR is revolutionizing the way scientists hunt for exoplanets around nearby stars. It allows scientists to block out the stats’ glare, potentially revealing worlds that are otherwise “invisible” to them.
“This is one of the first dedicated multinight exoplanet imaging campaigns, in which we stacked all of the data we accumulated over nearly a month and used that to achieve our final sensitivity,” explained Kevin Wagner, a Sagan Fellow in NASA’s Hubble Fellowship Program at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory.
The important thing to mention is that the signal doesn’t necessarily mean the planet is there. It is tantalizing evidence, but it still needs to be verified, which is why the alleged world still hasn’t been named.
What we do know is that the signal in the data would place the size of the potential planet somewhere between Saturn or Neptune.
This means that the exoplanet if it exists, is far from being similar to our own planet; it is likely a warm gas giant.
This doesn’t mean life can’t exist there, but if it does, it is likely microbial in nature, inhabiting the upper atmosphere of the exoplanet–just as scientists suggested last year when they discovered potential traces of microbial life existing in the upper atmosphere of Venus.
The signal in the data could also be something entirely different, like stray photons or cosmic dust.
In order to confirm the existence of the planet, the astronomers would need to observe the object and calculate its position within the orbit.
Read more about the discovery here.
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