To Bb or not to Bb?

Doppler spectroscopy

Doppler spectroscopy

Part of the wonder of science is that it’s never the same from one moment to the next. A scientist can make an observation, develop a hypothesis, test the theory, and find it either correct or incorrect. If it’s correct, great! If not, even better!

Even better? Of course. It means that there is another chance to collect data and see what’s really going on.

Scientists live for that. It’s in their nature to be curious.

Given that, astronomers are turning cartwheels over Alpha Centauri Bb, a possible exoplanet orbiting Alpha Centauri, the nearest star to our own Sun.

Ongoing research has shown that it definitely is or isn’t there.

Three distinct groups of astronomers are conducting research, and all 3 of them, when asked, answer the question of the existence of Alpha Centauri Bb by saying, “Maybe.”

Doppler Spectroscopy, which detects minute changes in the velocity of the host star, indicated in October 2012 that a planet with a mass similar to that of Earth may be orbiting Alpha Centauri. While the mass of Bb is similar to Earth, it’s far too close to the star to support life.

In fact, if it really is there, it’s so close to Alpha Centauri that one year there lasts only about 3.25 days.

So what’s the problem?

Since the initial observation, scientists are having a difficult time confirming the data. After filtering out “noise” from known sources, like solar activity and influence from Alpha Centauri A, the data are now inconclusive.

There might a planet there, and there might not. Part of the problem is the sensitivity of the instruments used in detection.

So how can we be sure? The team that made the initial discovery has requested usage of the Hubble Space Telescope to verify their find using direct observation. If Bb can actually be photographed in orbit around Alpha Centauri, the mystery will be solved. This may also help in detecting other possible planets in that system.

Do we have other options? Of course, there are always alternatives. The possibility exists of sending a probe to Alpha Centauri, but any craft developed using current technology would need about 40,000 years to get there. While we’d never know the outcome of such a mission, just sending it could be our way of annoucing our presence. After all, since we’re not sure that there’s a planet there that could support life, we also don’t know that there isn’t.

Would it be worth it? Of course!