Scientists Discover New, Potentially Habitable Planet

Scientists in Chile have discovered a new planet that could have the potential to host life.

The planet was located in the habitable zone of nearby star Alpha Centauri A, located 4.37 light years from Earth. 

It was discovered by researchers working on the New Earths in the Alpha Centauri Region (NEAR) project, funded by entrepreneur Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Initiatives. The astronomers’ goal was to see if planets around the habitable zones of stars could be directly imaged. 

The scientists were using the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile to look for exoplanets when they spotted a separate glowing object, suspecting it to be a planet candidate.

The small speck of light they detected is actually between the size of Neptune and Saturn, being about four to five times larger than Earth. The planet itself is the same distance between the Earth and the Sun from its own star, Alpha Centauri A. This places it in the habitable zone, where liquid water may be able to form to support life.

The scientists captured the planet by directly photographing it – the first instance of this technique being accomplished successfully. Previously, astronomers could only determine the existence of exoplanets by observing stars. If stars became dim during observations, it was likely to be having a planet passing in front of it. Being able to photograph the habitable zones of stars directly opens up brand new possibilities when searching for exoplanets.

One of the study’s members, Kevin Wagner of the University of Arizona, was excited by this new discovery, saying: “We were amazed to find a signal in our data. While the detection meets every criteria for what a planet would look like, alternative explanations – such such as dust orbiting within the habitable zone or simply an instrumental artefact of unknown origin – have to be ruled out.”

Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to our Sun. It is a triple star system, consisting of three stars: Alpha Centauri A (Rigil Kentaurus), Alpha Centauri B (Toliman), and Alpha Centauri C (Proxima Centauri). The stars are a similar size and temperature to our sun.

In 2016, scientists discovered another potentially habitable planet orbiting the third star in the Alpha Centauri system, Proxima Centauri.

Now that scientists have the technology to directly image planets, the hunt for life across space may become a little easier.