We Explored Pluto, Now Let’s Explore The Nearest Star!

Artist's impression of the planet around Alpha Centauri B. Credit: ESO

On July 14th, 2015, the New Horizons space probe made history when it became the first spacecraft to conduct a flyby of the dwarf planet of Pluto. Since that time, it has been making its way through the Kuiper Belt, on its way to joining Voyager 1 and 2 in interstellar space. With this milestone reached, many are wondering where we should send our spacecraft next.Naturally, there are those who recommend we set our sights on our nearest star – particularly proponents of interstellar travel and exoplanet hunters. In addition to being Earth’s immediate neighbor, there is the possibility of one or more exoplanets in this system. Confirming the existence of exoplanets would be one of the main reasons to go. But more than that, it would be a major accomplishment!Located 4.3 light years from Earth, the Alpha Centauri system consists of three stars – Alpha Centauri A, B, and C (aka. Proxima Centauri). For many years now, exoplanet hunters have been divided on the issue of whether or not it has a system of planets. This began in February of 2008, when a team of European observers working at the European Southern Observatory‘s La Silla facility in Chile began searching for a possible exoplanet in orbit of Alpha Centauri B – which was designated Alpha Centauri Bb.Using the Doppler spectroscopy method, they recorded measurements of Alpha Centauri B’s radial velocity and color spectrum over a four-year period. They then applied statistical filters to remove known sources of variance to be sure that what they were detecting was indeed a planet, and not background noise.In October of 2012, in an article submitted to the scientific journal Nature, they officially announced the existence of Alpha Centauri Bb. According to the team, the planet —> Read More