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Pack Your Bags; Astronomers Discover a Planet in Alpha Centauri, the Closest Star System to Our Own
by Rebecca Pahle | 11:00 am, October 17th, 2012
This week has been really awesome for planet discovery. First amateur “citizen scientists” discovered a planet with four suns; now, astronomers at the European Southern Observatory have found an Earth-sized planet in the Alpha Centauri system, the closest solar system to our own.
(For Hitchhiker’s Guide fans, Alpha Centauri is the site our “local planning department,” where the orders to demolish Earth were on display for 50 years before the Vogons showed up to vaporize everything. So we might want to up NASA’s budget so we can hurry over there and double-check we’re not slated for annihilation. Just to be on the safe side.)
The planet, called Alpha Centauri Bb, orbits Alpha Centauri B, one of the system’s three suns. (Astronomers, you just discovered a new planet, so I’ll give you a pass on the awful name, but do better next time, eh?) It’s 4.37 light years, or approximately 25 trillion miles, away, which isn’t exactly close, but it’s still half the distance from us as the next nearest planet that we know about. In fact, the new planet is so close to our own on a cosmic scale that, notes science writer Lee Billings,
its night sky shares most of Earth’s constellations. From the planet’s broiling surface, one could see familiar sights such as the Big Dipper and Orion the Hunter, looking just as they do to our eyes here. One of the few major differences would be in the constellation Cassiopeia, which from Earth appears as a 5-starred “W” in the northern sky. Looking out from Alpha Centauri B b and any other planets in that system, Cassiopeia would gain a sixth star, six times brighter than the other five, becoming not a W but a sinuous snake or a winding river. Cassiopeia’s sixth bright point of light would be our Sun and its entire planetary system.
Did you just get chills? I just got chills.
Though Alpha Centauri Bb is an “Earth-like” planet in terms of its mass, it’s not habitable—being closer to its own sun than Mercury is to ours means that its probable surface temperature is around 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Still, if there’s one planet in the Alpha Centauri system, who’s to say astronomers won’t discover another? Maybe one further out from its star at an orbit more friendly to human life?
But we’re never gonna find it if the government keeps cutting NASA’s planetary exploration budget. Hint, hint.
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