A new theory about planet formation has posited that stars, placed under inordinate stress, could break apart catastrophically, flinging their smouldering remains out into the void at tumultuous speeds. It would take quite a force to render stars apart in this way. The supermassive black hole which lies at the centre of the galaxy creates just such an impression. Wayward stars drifting inexorably into the depths of its immense gravitational well would not fare well, during what are termed Tidal Disruption Events (1,2).
Researchers from Harvard University (namely, undergraduate Eden Girma and James Guillochon, an Einstein fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), have conducted computer simulations to model what happens to this streaming material, and the results are quite extraordinary:
“Every few thousand years, an unlucky star wanders too close to the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. The black hole’s powerful gravity rips the star apart, sending a long streamer of gas whipping outward. That would seem to be the end of the story, but it’s not. New research shows that not only can the gas gather itself into planet-size objects, but those objects then are flung throughout the galaxy in a game of cosmic “spitball.”” (3)
August 2016 saw the announcement of the discovery of an Earth-like planet orbiting our nearest neighbourhood star – the red dwarf Proxima Centauri. The official press release was preceded by a leak to the German media from within the team of astronomers. Here, I tell the story of the rumours of the announcement, and the wider implications of the discovery itself:
Rumours of an Earth-like Planet Orbiting Proxima Centauri
The German magazine Der Spiegel has reported that a major announcement is imminent: there is an Earth-like planet orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri; the Sun’s closest stellar neighbour at 4.24 light years distance.
The magazine claims that the discovery was made by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) using the La Silla Observatory’s reflecting telescope in Chile, based upon a leak from an astrophysicist who has been working with the La Silla team (1). This alleged discovery is in keeping with the current work being carried out at La Silla, as described in January earlier this year:
“What good news that the Pale Red Dot project is now planning a two-month observing campaign to search for potential Earth-analogs around Proxima Centauri using HARPS, the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher spectrograph at the ESO La Silla 3.6m telescope. Nightly monitoring began on January 18th.” (2)