Now you see it, now you don’t

No Planet of Alpha Centauri B?

Last October astronomers announced big news: the discovery of a rocky, scorching hot, Earth-sized planet circling our closest stellar neighbor, the orange dwarf star Alpha Centauri B just 4.3 light-years away. Exoplanet astronomer Debra Fischer (Yale) told the New York Times that the planet next door was the “story of the decade.” Almost lost in the excitement was the caveat that the planet’s detection was still iffy and required heroic efforts to extract any sign of it from the background noise of the star’s radial-velocity measurements.

Now the plot has become more muddled. A new analysis of the data by an independent researcher has failed to confirm the planet’s existence.

How to resolve this issue: Get a lot more data. Everybody involved agrees on that. This is science at work. Finding a planet in the Alpha Centauri system would be really cool (ask any science fiction fan), but we need to be sure it is really there.

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