What if Alpha Centauri bb, the Earth-like planet discovered in 2012, never existed? Since it has apparently vanished, a new study led by graduate student Vinesh Rajpaul from the University of Oxford suggests it never was out there to begin with. The paper will be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society soon.
The planet orbiting a star located in close proximity to our Earth (only 4.3 light-years away) was discovered 3 years ago. It was put under the spotlight because of its mass being similar to the Earth’s. Also, the distance between the exoplanet and its star is similar to Mercury and the sun. All this seems to have been but conjecture, according to the new study.
The very discovery of the planet is being questioned. A research conducted in 2013 also suggested the same, describing the evidence of its existence to be weak. The planet is now being called a “ghost” in the data that had been gleaned; the results constitute a warning to astrophysicists against relying on sporadic data collected from distant star systems.
The planet in question (or, ‘planet’) was detected using the wobble system entailing identifying a ‘wobble’ in a star that might suggest a small planet pulling it. This method of identification is generally regarded as being reliable. However, for small planets like the Earth, this might not always be the case: according to the new study, background noise can make it difficult to make out a true signal, and it is particularly hard if the star system is not regularly monitored. As a matter of fact, the star Alpha Centauri was not.
The researchers showed that elusive patterns of light produced by other entities in a star system might be mistaken for a planet – they proved this via a simulation of a star having no planet.
“When we generated synthetic data, the planet popped up exactly, even though there was no planet,” said Rajpaul in a statement to National Geographic.
Even the team that discovered the Alpha Centauri bb seemed to agree with Rajpaul.
“This is really good work,” said Xavier Dumusque, the researcher who led the team behind the discovery. “We are not 100 percent sure, but probably the planet is not there.”