Holy sci-fi awesome space balls. European astronomers have discovered an alien planet in Alpha Centauri, the star system that’s pretty much our neighbour. The planet, which is Earth-sized, is only 4.3 light years away.
The Earth-sized planet is orbiting Alpha Centauri B, one of the three stars in that star system, and is “also the lightest exoplanet ever discovered around a star like the Sun.” How did they find the planet that’s been in our metaphorical space backyard? It’s actually a new technique that’s quite amazing:
The European team detected the planet by picking up the tiny wobbles in the motion of the star Alpha Centauri B created by the gravitational pull of the orbiting planet. The effect is minute — it causes the star to move back and forth by 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.
The planet is only 4 million miles away from its star (we’re 93 million miles away) and it completes one orbit — or year — in only 3.2 days. Still, finding a planet in Alpha Centauri is not just awesome (which it totally is) but important because the technique used could potentially lead to other planet discoveries. [ESO, ABC News, MSNBC]