Alpha Centauri is our closest stellar neighbor, a binary star system located just 4.376 light-years away. Despite its proximity, repeated astronomical surveys have failed to find hard evidence of extrasolar planets in this system. Part of the problem is that the system consists of two stars orbiting each other, which makes detecting exoplanets through the two most popular methods very challenging. In 2019, Breakthrough Initiatives announced they were backing a new project to find exoplanets next door – the Telescope for Orbit Locus Interferometric Monitoring of our Astronomical Neighbourhood (TOLIMAN, after the star’s ancient name in Arabic).
This low-cost mission concept was designed by a team from the University of Sydney, Australia, and aims to look for potentially-habitable exoplanets in the Alpha Centauri system using the Astrometry Method. This consists of monitoring a star’s apparent position in the sky for signs of wobble, indicating that gravitational forces (like planets) are acting on it. Recently, the University of Sydney signed a contract with EnduroSat, a leading microsatellites and space services provider, to provide the delivery system and custom-built minisatellite that will support the mission when it launches.
Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to our Sun, is like a treasure trove with many scientific discoveries just waiting to be found. Part of what makes it so compelling is that our efforts to detect extrasolar planets there have failed to yield any concrete results to date. While the study of exoplanets has progressed exponentially in recent years, with 4,575 confirmed planets in 3,392 systems in the Milky Way (and even neighboring galaxies), astronomers are still having difficulty determining if anyone is next door.
We’d love to find another planet like Earth. Not exactly like Earth; that’s kind of ridiculous and probably a little more science fiction than science. But what if we could find one similar enough to Earth to make us wonder?
How could we find it? We progress from one planet-finding mission to the next, compiling a list of planets that may be “Earth-like” or “potentially habitable.” Soon, we’ll have the James Webb Space Telescope and its ability to study exoplanet atmospheres for signs of life and habitability.
But one new study is focusing on exomoons and the role they play in a planet’s habitability. If we find a Moon-like exomoon in a stable orbit around its planet, could it be evidence that the planet itself is more Earth-like? Maybe, but we’re not there yet.
On October 19th, 2017, astronomers from the Haleakala Observatory in Hawaii announced the first-ever detection of an interstellar object in our Solar System. In honor of the observatory that first spotted it, this object (designated 1I/2017 U1) was officially named ‘Oumuamua by the IAU – a Hawaiian term loosely translated as “Scout” (or, “a messenger from afar arriving first.”)
Having spent the past few years presenting this controversial theory before the scientific and astronomical community, Prof. Loeb has since shared the story of how he came to it in his new book, Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth. The book is a seminal read, addresses the mystery of ‘Oumuamua, and (most importantly) urges readers to take seriously the possibility that an extraterrestrial encounter took place
Astronomers using a new technique may have not only found a super-Earth at a neighbouring star, but they may also have directly imaged it. And it could be nice and cozy in the habitable zone around Alpha Centauri.
Our closest stellar neighbour is Proxima Centauri, a small red dwarf star about 4.2 light years away from us. It’s the third member of the Alpha Centauri group, and even though it’s so close, it can’t be seen with the naked eye. In 2016 astronomers discovered a planet orbiting Proxima Centuari, named Proxima Centauri b. That planet was confirmed only a few days ago.
Now, astronomers have confirmed the existence of a second planet, Proxima Centauri c.
In a few decades, the Breakthrough Starshot initiative hopes to send a sailcraft to the neighboring system of Alpha Centauri. Using a lightsail and a directed energy (aka. laser) array, a tiny spacecraft could be accelerated to 20% the speed of light (0.2 c). This would allow Starshot to make the journey to Alpha Centauri and study any exoplanets there in just 20 years, thus fulfilling the dream of interstellar exploration within our lifetimes.
Naturally, this plan presents a number of engineering and logistical challenges, one of which involves the transmission of data back to Earth. In a recent study, Starshot Systems Director Dr. Kevin L.G. Parkin analyzes the possibility of using a laser to transmit data back to Earth. This method, argued Parkin, is the most effective way for humanity to get a glimpse of what lies beyond our Solar System.
The dream of traveling to another star and planting the seed of humanity on a distant planet… It is no exaggeration to say that it has captivated the imaginations of human beings for centuries. With the birth of modern astronomy and the Space Age, scientific proposals have even been made as to how it could be done. But of course, living in a relativistic Universe presents many challenges for which there are no simple solutions.
Of these challenges, one of the greatest has to do with the sheer amount of energy necessary to get humans to another star within their own lifetimes. Hence why some proponents of interstellar travel recommend sending spacecraft that are essentially miniaturized worlds that can accommodate travelers for centuries or longer. These “Generation Ships” (aka. worldships or Interstellar Arks) are spacecraft that are built for the truly long haul.
In the past, the number of known exoplanets has exploded, with 4093 confirmed detections so far (and another 4,727 candidates awaiting confirmation). With the discovery of so many planets that are dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of light years away, a great deal of attention has understandably been directed to our nearest stellar neighbors. Could planets be right next door, with the possibility of life being there as well?
While a potentially-habitable planet was recently discovered around Proxima Centauri (Proxima b), Alpha Centauri remains something of a question mark. But thanks to a recent study from the Georgia Institute of Technology (GIT), we might be getting closer to determining if this neighboring system supports life. In a twist, the study revealed that one of the stars in the binary system is more likely to be habitable than the other.