Being careful not to claim a discovery, astronomers say they have directly imaged something close to Alpha Centauri A, a near twin of our Sun and, at 4.5 light-years away, part of the closest star system to home. As Scientific American explains, astronomers are excited because being so close means any planets in the Alpha Centauri system are prime candidates for detailed study—once a new generation of ground-based and orbiting telescopes starts to observe the skies in the next few years. Two planets have been spied around Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf member of the system, which has focused intense interest on Alpha Centauri A and B—both sunlike—because a planet around them (like the one imagined above) would be more like home. Breakthrough Watch, a project funded by Israeli-Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, built a $3 million instrument specifically to capture the light of planets around Alpha Centauri, with an optical mask to block the glare of the stars and capturing midinfrared light because planets shine more brightly at that wavelength. Fixed to Europe’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, the detector studied the system for 10 nights early in 2019. By the time researchers realized they’d spied something like a Neptune-size object in the planet’s habitable zone, the telescope was shuttered by the pandemic and they weren’t able to confirm it. Now that it’s operating again, the team has applied for more observing time. So, watch that space.
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