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24 July 2016

Trying to discover habitable planets isn't just for science fiction anymore

This short documentary shows how astronomers hope to find the next habitable planets

Just a couple of decades ago, the very idea that there were other planets orbiting stars throughout the universe was something that belonged to science fiction. However, recent research has shown not only are there other planets out there, but that they’re extremely common. The short documentary The Search for Earth Proxima outlines the breakthroughs that have led us to these discoveries, and how a group of astronomers plan to look for habitable planets in our neighborhood.

Equipment such as the Kepler spacecraft has helped us find planets that are not only orbiting stars, but that there are planets out there that are the right size and at the right distance away from their host star to potentially harbor Earth-like conditions.

It’s hard to detect these Earth-like planets: they’re extremely faint — one astronomer likened it to trying to spot a firefly in a spotlight from ten miles away. Fortunately, nearby stars make this task a bit easier, and the astronomers want to take a closer look at Alpha Centauri A and B, our closest stellar neighbors.

The group is hoping that technological advances will help them move beyond Kepler and on to other programs that will help them directly study Alpha Centauri.

One idea that they float is Program Centaur, a small space telescope designed to locate any Earth-like planets discovered around the binary star system. The spacecraft is the size of a washing machine, and they pointed to the rise of commercial space providers such as SpaceX as a potential partner to get their equipment into orbit.

With the huge number of planets out there, it feels as though it's just a matter of time before an Earth-like (and potentially habitable) world is discovered. Maybe, that day isn't too far off.