Alpha Centauri continues to be a maddening and elusive subject for study. Two decades of radial velocity work on Centauri A and B have been able to constrain the possibilities — we’ve learned that there are no gas giants larger than Jupiter in orbits within 2 AU of either of the stars. But lower mass planets remain a possibility, and in 2012 we had the announcement of a planet slightly more massive than Earth in a tight orbit around Centauri B. It was an occasion for celebration (see Lee Billings’ essay Alpha Centauri and the New Astronomy for a glimpse of how that moment felt and how it fit into the larger world of exoplanet research).
But the candidate world, Centauri Bb, remains controversial, and for good reason. The work involved radial velocity methods at a level of precision that pushed our instruments to the limit. Andrew LePage explored the issues in Happy Anniversary α Centauri Bb?, where the question-mark tells the tale. Here he discusses the instrumentation involved in the 2012 work:
The first team to announce any results from their search was the European team using the HARPS (High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planetary Searcher) spectrometer on the 3.6-meter telescope at the European Southern Observatory in La Silla, Chile. They employed a new data processing technique to extract the 0.5 meter per second signal of α Centauri Bb out of 459 radial velocity measurements they obtained between February 2008 and July 2011. These radial velocity data had a measurement uncertainty of 0.8 meters per second and contained an estimated 1.5 meters per second of natural noise or “jitter” resulting from a range of activity on the surface of α Centauri B modulated by its 38-day period of rotation.
A planet with a 3.24 day orbital period was the result of an extremely low-amplitude signal, and subsequent analysis raised doubts about its validity, with Artie Hatzes (Thuringian State Observatory) finding that additional observations were needed to make sure we weren’t seeing noise in the data instead of a planet. Bear in mind that we also have Debra Fischer (Yale University) and team investigating Alpha Centauri Bb at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile and a team at Mt. John University Observatory in New Zealand.
Image: An artist’s impression of the still unconfirmed α Centauri Bb, whose discovery was announced on October 16, 2012. The planet is the subject of a new transit search discussed below. (Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/Nick Risinger)
Now comes Brice-Oliver Demory (University of Cambridge), whose team has gone after a different kind of detection, working with the Hubble Space Telescope on a transit search of Centauri B in hopes of finding the signature of the controversial planet. Transits depend upon the alignment of star, planet and observer, so a null result doesn’t demonstrate that the planet doesn’t exist, but using 40 hours of observation, the team was able to rule out a transit of Centauri Bb under the published orbital parameters with a confidence level of 96.6 percent.
The story does have an intriguing coda in the form of a single 2013 event, one that lasted longer than expected for a Centauri Bb transit. The team worked through the possibilities of instrument error and other factors, as the paper explains:
We explore in the following the possibility that the July 2013 transit pattern is due to stellar variability, instrumental systematics or caused by a background eclipsing binary. We do not find any temperature or HST orbital dependent parameter, nor X/Y spectral drifts to correlate with the transit pattern. The transit candidate duration of 3.8 hours is 2.4 times longer than the HST orbital period, making the transit pattern unlikely to be attributable to HST instrumental systematics. As the detector is consistently saturated during all of our observations, we also find it unlikely that saturation is the origin of the transit signal.
Another source of confusion could be activity on the star itself, but the researchers do not see it as a factor:
…the duration of the transit candidate (3.8-hr) is not consistent with the stellar rotational period of 36.2 days…, to enable a spot (or group of spots) to come in and out of view. In such a case, star spots would change the overall observed flux level and produce transit-shape signals, as is the case for stars having fast rotational periods…
We are left with the possibility that this may have been an actual planetary transit with a different orbital period than described in the Centauri Bb discovery paper. Is it a second possible planet around Centauri B, one with an orbital period in the vicinity of 20 days? It will take follow-up photometric observations of an extremely tricky stellar system to tell us more.
In this New Scientist article on the Hubble observations, Demory mentions the possibility of a low-cost, perhaps crowd-funded mission, a small satellite whose sole purpose would be the kind of intensive Alpha Centauri ‘stare’ that busy instruments like Hubble haven’t time for. It’s an interesting idea, and would make for a KickStarter project in the range of $2 million. Says Demory: “Anyone fancy chipping in to find our nearest neighbours?”
The paper is Demory et al., “Hubble Space Telescope search for the transit of the Earth-mass exoplanet Alpha Centauri B b,” accepted at Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (preprint). For a thorough analysis of the data involved in this work, see Andrew LePage’s essay Has Another Planet Been Found Orbiting Alpha Centauri B?