The Long Shot
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Photograph courtesy of Tim Abbott and NOAO/AURA/NSF | Image Permalink

Photograph courtesy of Guillermo Damke | Image Permalink

Photograph courtesy of Debra Fischer | Image Permalink

Photograph courtesy of ESO | Image Permalink

Photograph courtesy of Debra Fischer | Image Permalink

Photograph courtesy of Greg Laughlin | Image Permalink

Photograph courtesy of Philippe Thébault | Image Permalink

Courtesy of N.A. Sharp, NOAO/NSO/Kitt Peak FTS/AURA/NSF | Image Permalink

Photograph courtesy of NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute | Image Permalink

Telescopes at Sunset

Sunset at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile.
Photograph courtesy of Tim Abbott and NOAO/AURA/NSF.

Starry Night

Due to its isolated location high in the arid Chilean Andes, CTIO provides breathtaking views of the southern night sky and pristine observing conditions for astronomers.
Photograph courtesy of Guillermo Damke

Midday at CTIO

Debra Fischer, an astronomer at San Francisco State University, is leading a 3-to-5-year project at CTIO to search for Earth-like planets around Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to our own.
Photograph courtesy of Debra Fischer

Closest Neighbors

Alpha Centauri is actually two stars, Alpha Centauri A and B, just over 4 light years away from us. Both stars closely resemble our Sun: A is slightly larger; B is slightly smaller. They're so close and so bright that they appear as one overwhelming glare in this telescopic image.
Photograph courtesy of ESO

Questionable Vintage

Fischer and her team are using this 1960s-era 1.5-meter telescope at CTIO to observe Alpha Centauri A and B hundreds of times each night, for hundreds of nights, hoping to gradually distill the telltale signatures of Earth-like planets from the shifting starlight. It's a risky proposition, requiring unprecedented instrumental stability and precision.
Photograph courtesy of Debra Fischer

Night Thoughts

Greg Laughlin, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, helped mastermind the project. The notion of devoting hundreds of nights of telescope time solely to teasing planetary signals from Alpha Centauri came to him one quiet evening in July 2006 as he sat at his kitchen table.
Photograph courtesy of Greg Laughlin

Theory Versus Observation

Philippe Thébault, a theoretician at the Paris Observatory, has run detailed numerical simulations of the Alpha Centauri system. His results are grim: According to the standard model of planet formation, nothing should be orbiting either star but rocks and pebbles. Fischer and Laughlin insist we can't know what's there until we actually look.
Photograph courtesy of Philippe Thébault

The Spectral Symphony

This is the spectrum of our Sun, where sunlight is broken into its constituent colors. Each of the team's observations of Alpha Centauri A and B produces a similar spectrum. The black regions are absorption lines--planets can be detected by the minuscule periodic shifts they impart to these lines as they orbit a star.
Courtesy of N.A. Sharp, NOAO/NSO/Kitt Peak FTS/AURA/NSF

Long Shot

The Cassini orbiter snapped this image of Alpha Centauri A and B hanging over the horizon of Saturn on May 17, 2008. Though we consider Saturn to be a far-off destination, scarcely possible for us to attain, Alpha Centauri A and B are almost 30,000 times more distant. With perseverance, someday we may reach them.
Courtesy of NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

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