Using a Chilean telescope, astronomer Debra Fischer is leading a team searching for Earth-like planets around Alpha Centuri, our sun’s nearest stellar neighbor.
RV shifts are how the vast majority of extrasolar worlds have been discovered, but only because these planets, called “hot Jupiters,” are extremely massive and in hellishly close orbits around their stars. Their stellar wobbles are measurable in meters per second; seeing the much smaller centimeters-per-second wobble of an Earth twin is orders of magnitude more difficult. For the Alpha Centauri system, the feat is akin to detecting a bacterium orbiting a meter from a sand grain-from a distance of 10 kilometers. But by devoting hundreds of nights of telescope time to collecting hundreds of thousands of individual observations of just these two stars, Fischer believes she can eventually distill the faint RV signal of any Earth-like planets. It’s simply a matter of statistics and brute force. The planets wouldn’t reveal themselves as images in a telescope, but as steadily strengthening probabilistic peaks.