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The alien next door

Newly discovered planet is just 4.4 light-years distant

5:45pm, October 16, 2012

Astronomers searching for Earthlike worlds need look no further than Alpha Centauri, the stellar system next door.

An Earth-sized planet has been discovered circling a star in the system, just 4.4 light-years away. The planet's mass is similar to Earth's, but its orbit is not. Tucked in close to its star — one-twenty-fifth the distance between Earth and the sun — the planet is likely a roasted world incapable of hosting life.

Still, the discovery, reported October 18 in Nature, ignites dreams of sending a spacecraft to Alpha Centauri, a perennially favored interstellar target because of its location in Earth's celestial backyard.

"A rocky planet around Alpha Centauri, our nearest neighbor — this is incredible," says astronomer Debra Fischer of Yale University. "If you were going to send a spacecraft anywhere, or a probe anywhere, that's where you'd go first. And if you

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