Question: Why aren’t astronomers looking for planets around nearby stars like Alpha Centauri?
Answer: That’s a great question. Since Alpha Centauri is only a little over 4 light-years away, why aren’t astronomers studying it for planets, instead of the more distant stars.
Astronomers have included stars like Alpha Centauri in their search for extrasolar planets, they just haven’t found them yet. That’s because the techniques used to find extra solar planets require very large planets orbiting very close to their parent stars.
The first technique is called the radial velocity method. This is where the gravity of the planet yanks its parent star back and forth. The changes in the star’s velocity are measurable in the light that reaches the Earth.
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The second technique looks for transits. This is where the planet passes in front of the parent star, dimming it slightly. By measuring the amount the light dims, astronomers are able to know if there’s a planet there, calculate its size and even determine what’s in its atmosphere.
A third technique detects microlensing events. A closer star focuses the light from a more distant star with its gravity. From Earth, we see a flare in brightness as the two stars line up perfectly. If the closer star has a planet orbiting it, that will change the light curve that astronomers detect, allowing them to calculate the size of the planet.
Most of the planets discovered to date are known as Hot Jupiters. These are planets much larger than Jupiter that orbit within the orbit of Mercury.
A team of astronomers led by Javiera Guedes from the University of California think that an Earth-sized planet should be detectable orbiting Alpha Centauri. They’re working to get a single dedicated telescope to watch the star, and work out if there are planets there. According to their calculations, it should only take about 5 years of intense observations by a dedicated telescope to work out the answer.