The Earth-sized exoplanet just discovered so close to us in space that we could basically hit it with a tossed rock, Alpha Centauri Bb, has been the topic of discussion this week with unmanned probes coming up as a real possibility. With this planet - also known as 51 Pegasi b - we're to understand that it's both slightly too close to its star to be habitable by humans and nearly identical to our planet in mass. The system in which this planet exists contains two stars, Centauri A and B, and exists just a bit more than four light years away from us right this minute.
The system also contains a red dwarf by the name of Proxima Centauri, and the star Centauri B - around which this newly discovered 51 Pegasi b orbits - is nearly the same mass as our own sun. To find the planet that's being reported on this week, researchers had to watch the star for four years, observing its gravitational "wobble" to calculate what was encircling it. Because planets like the one we're speaking about here generally exist in groups, the astronomers reporting this set of findings have said that it's quite likely that this planet will have some neighbors nearby.
While Proxima Centauri is indeed the closest star to our own Sun at 4.2 light years away, the Alpha Centauri A and B are right around 4.4 light years away and are ripe for exploration sometime in the future. A non-profit group by the name of Icarus Interstellar, registered in the USA in the state of Alaska at the moment, aims to send an unmanned probe to another star system within this next century - Alpha Centauri suddenly seems like a riper goal than ever.
"I have often imagined the day when scientists directly image an Earth-like extra-solar planet. We would be able to determine the planet's atmosphere and surface temperature from its spectrum, and we would thus know whether it might be able to sustain life as we know it. I suspect that once such a discovery hits the news, people worldwide are going to demand that we send a probe to determine whether the planet has life (of any type) and/or could be suitable for human habitation. If the latter proves true, then a manned mission would eventually follow.
The discovery of (Alpha) Centauri Bb isn't quite as momentous as this owing to its proximity to the star, but this discovery is a warning shot that the news is coming a lot sooner than we think." - Icarus Deputy Project Leader Robert Freeland
Stay tuned as we travel to other planets quicker than you think - expect probes inside your lifetime, folks - we're headed upward and outward!