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Newfound Earth-sized planet too distant to visit

The exploration of the planet known as Alpha Centauri Bb will require technology not currently in existence, say researchers. But if it has sibling planets in a 'habitable zone' scientists may be encouraged to develop the new technology required to such explore new and distant worlds. 

By Mike / October 16, 2012

This artist's concept shows the newfound alien planet Alpha Centauri Bb, found in a three-star system just 4.3 light-years from Earth.

ESO/L. Calçada


Astronomers have discovered an alien planet right in our solar system's backyard, but residents of Earth shouldn't get their hopes up for an exploration mission anytime soon. The newfound world is much too far away for probes to visit using current technology, experts say.

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Researchers announced Tuesday (Oct. 16) that the scorching-hot alien planet Alpha Centauri Bb, which is about as massive as Earth, resides in the three-star Alpha Centauri system. While no other star is closer to our sun than the Alpha Centauri trio, they're still about 4.3 light-years away, making a close-up look at the planet pretty much impossible right now.

A robotic exoplanet mission launching today "would require about 40,000 years to get to Alpha Centauri," Greg Laughlin, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told reporters Tuesday. "So, given our propensity for instant gratification, that's not really an option that's on the table."

But Laughlin, who was not involved in the discovery, added that attitudes could change if researchers made a few more intriguing discoveries in the Alpha Centauri system.

25 trillion miles away

One light-year is about 5.9 trillion miles (9.5 trillion kilometers). So the three stars in Alpha Centauri are more than 25 trillion miles (40 trillion km) from Earth. [Gallery: Nearby Alien Planet Alpha Centauri Bb]

To put this huge distance into perspective: NASA's Voyager 1 probe, the most far-flung object ever launched from Earth, is currently about 11.3 billion miles (18.2 billion km) into its journey, cruising toward the edge of our solar system. Voyager 1 has thus covered less than 0.05 percent of the distance to Alpha Centauri Bb — and the probe has been zooming through space for more than 35 years. 

New technologies needed

Alpha Centauri Bb sits just 3.6 million miles (6 million km) from its sunlike star, completing one orbit every 3.2 days. As a result, the planet's surface is far too hot to support life as we know it, researchers said.

But the solar systems containing a small, rocky world often have multiple planets, Laughlin said, so it's possible Alpha Centauri Bb has some siblings — perhaps even a world or two out in its host star's "habitable zone," the range of distances that can support liquid water.

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