Astronomers have detected thousands of new planets over the last few years, but while many of them have the potential to be habitable, most are too far away for us to ever actually visit.
That’s why the discovery of an Earth-like world in orbit around Proxima Centauri – a red dwarf star situated just 4.25 light-years away – was deemed so significant when it was revealed back in 2016.
Now astronomers believe that they may have found an indication of another plant in orbit around Alpha Centauri A – one of the Alpha Centauri AB binary pair – making our closest neighboring star system an even more tantalising possibility in the search for life outside our own solar system.
It has been stressed however that the find – which amounts to a ‘planet candidate’ – is still tentative, meaning that it has yet to be confirmed that this is definitely a new planet.
“We detected something,” said Pete Klupar, chief engineer of the Breakthrough Initiatives.
“It could be an artefact in the machine or it could be a planet, or it could be asteroids or dust.”
It was picked up by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile’s Atacama Desert with the help of a new coronagraph on the instrument that blocks the light from the stars themselves, thus making orbiting planets easier to see.
“A lot of people say planets can’t form in this kind of binary and that’s one reason we are cautious about claiming it is actually a planet,” said Klupar.
“But if it is, it would be about the size of Neptune.”