Thursday, April 12, 2018

What is Alpha Centauri hiding? Searches for Earth-like planets ramp up around our nearest stellar neighbor

Alpha Centauri, a three-star system just 4 light-years away that is the sun's nearest neighbor, ought to be a great place to look for Earth-like planets. But last week, at a meeting of the European Astronomical Society (EAS) here, astronomers lamented the way the system has thwarted discovery efforts so far—and announced new efforts to probe it. "It's very likely that there are planets," says Pierre Kervella of the Paris Observatory in Meudon, France, but the nature and positions of the stars complicate the search. "It's a little frustrating for planet searchers."

The system's two sunlike stars, Alpha Centauri A and B, orbit each other closely while Proxima Centauri, a tempestuous red dwarf, hangs onto the system tenuously in a much more distant orbit. In 2016, astronomers discovered an Earth-mass planet around Proxima Centauri, but the planet, blasted by radiation and fierce stellar winds, seems unlikely to be habitable. Astrobiologists think the other two stars are more likely to host temperate, Earth-like planets.

Maksym Lisogorskyi, an astronomer at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, U.K., tried to find them with an instrument on the European Southern Observatory's (ESO's) 3.6-meter telescope in Chile. He and his colleagues looked for Doppler shifts in the spectral lines of the stars' light that would be caused if a planet tugged them back and forth. But Lisogorskyi told the meeting that the stars' surfaces are turbulent, and prone to flares that also jiggle the spectral lines, masking the subtle signals from any Earth-size planets. "The lines do all kinds of things," he says. Although Alpha Centauri has been a primary target for the planet-finding instrument since it was inaugurated in 2005, it has seen nothing so far.