It is the type of planet they’ve been searching for across the Milky Way galaxy and they found it circling a star right next door — 25 trillion miles away. But the Earth-like planet is so hot its surface may be like molten lava. Life cannot survive the 2,200 degree heat of the planet, so close to its star that it circles it every few days.
The astronomers who found it say it’s likely there are other planets circling the same star, a little farther away where it may be cool enough for water and life. And those planets might fit the not-too-hot, not-too-cold description sometimes call the Goldilocks Zone.
That means that in the star system Alpha Centauri B, a just-right planet could be closer than astronomers had once imagined.
It’s so close that from some southern places on Earth, you can see Alpha Centauri B in the night sky without a telescope. But it’s still so far that a trip there using current technology would take tens of thousands of years.
But the wow factor of finding such a planet so close has some astronomers already talking about how to speed up a 25 trillion-mile rocket trip there. Scientists have already started pressuring NASA and the European Space Agency to come up with missions to send something out that way to get a look at least.
The research was released online Tuesday in the journal Nature.
Geoff Marcy of the University of California Berkeley, gushed even more about the scientific significance.
“This is an historic discovery,” he wrote in an email. “There could well be an Earth-size planet in that Goldilocks sweet spot, not too cold and not too hot, making Alpha Centauri a compelling target to search for intelligent life.”
Finding such a planet close by required a significant stroke of good luck, said University of California Santa Cruz astronomer Greg Laughlin.
Dumusque described what it might be like on this odd and still unnamed hot planet. Its closest star is so near that it would always hang huge in the sky. And whichever side of the planet faced the star would be broiling hot, with the other side icy cold.
Because of the mass of the planet, it’s likely a rocky surface like Earth, Dumusque said. But the rocks would be “more like lava, like a lava planet.”
“If there are any inhabitants there, they’re made of asbestos,” joked SETI Institute astronomer, Seth Shostak.