Last night, astronomers with the European Southern Observatory announced that they'd found a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B — an orange star a little smaller and a little less bright than our own Sun. That's important, because, while more than 700 planets have been found outside our solar system, this one — Alpha Centauri Bb (yeah, I know) — is by far the closest. To give you an idea of what we're talking about in distance here, imagine that we are Kansas City and Mars is Toledo. Alpha Centauri Bb is like Tokyo — but you have to get there the long way around and nobody has invented the boat or the plane yet. Basically, it's closer than any other planet we know of outside our solar system, but not really close close. Just 4.37 light years is still more than 25 trillion miles, which is still a long ways away.
Likewise, Alpha Centauri Bb is classified as an "Earth-like" planet, but that shouldn't give you any ideas of colonizing it Zefram Cochrane-style. Bb is way too close to its star for that — closer, even, than Mercury is to our own Sun.
But you should still be excited about this. Terrible, filing-cabinet name aside, Alpha Centauri Bb is jeffing epic. Until now, we didn't think our closest neighboring solar system had any planets at all. And because of the way planets work, writes Lee Billings at the Centauri Dreams blog, this single find means we're much, much more likely to discover other Centaurian worlds. Billings is a former guest blogger here at BoingBoing and his work on exoplanets is second to none. I highly recommend reading his full piece:
Anyone in the Southern Hemisphere can look up on a clear night and easily see Alpha Centauri — to the naked eye, the three suns merge into one of the brightest stars in Earth’s sky, a single golden point piercing the foot of the constellation Centaurus, a few degrees away from the Southern Cross. In galactic terms, the new planet we’ve found there is so very near our own that 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.
• Read Lee Billings' full post about Alpha Centauri Bb, and keep an eye on the Centauri Dreams blog for further updates/analysis.
• Read Phil Plait's take at Bad Astronomy
• A helpful NASA primer on distance in space
• In the late 1980s, NASA considered sending an unmanned probe to Alpha Centauri B. It would have taken 100 years to get there, using nuclear explosions to create thrust.
Image: Marco Lorenzi via NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day