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Alpha Centauri A (L) and Alpha Centauri B seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. Photo: NASA/ESA

A planet about the size of Neptune could be lurking in the habitable zone of one of our nearest stars, Alpha Centauri A, according to a new study.

Why it matters: It's an exciting hint that potentially habitable alien worlds could be just a few light-years away.

What they found: The possible planet was discovered using about 100 hours of telescope time that allowed scientists to directly image the habitable zones — the orbits around a star where water could exist on a planet's surface — of the two Sun-like stars in the Alpha Centauri system.

  • The system is only 4.37 light-years from Earth, and this marks the first time the habitable zones of Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B have been directly imaged.
  • Until now, habitable zone planets had not been found around either of those stars, but another star in the system, Proxima Centauri — a red dwarf star smaller than the Sun — appears to host to a possible planet in its habitable zone.
“We were amazed to find a signal in our data. While the detection meets every criteria for what a planet would look like, alternative explanations – such as dust orbiting within in the habitable zone or simply an instrumental artifact of unknown origin – have to be ruled out.”
— Kevin Wagner, an author of the new study in Nature Communications, said in a statement

The big picture: Scientists usually find planets by detecting the small dips in a star's light created when a world passes in front of its star from Earth's perspective.

  • Researchers are also able to detect the tiny wobbles of a star created by the slight tug of a planet's gravity as it orbits.
  • Direct imaging, on the other hand, allows astronomers to potentially learn more about a planet's atmosphere, composition and size.

Go deeper

60 mins ago - Health

Nevada to impose insurance surcharge on unvaccinated state workers

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak. Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Nevada's Public Employees' Benefit Program Board voted Thursday to charge workers enrolled in public employee health insurance plans a surcharge of up to $55 a month if they're not vaccinated against COVID-19, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reports.

Why it matters: Nevada is the first state to announce such a move, per AP.

Oklahoma sues Biden administration over Pentagon vaccine mandate

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin testifies before a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Sept. 29 in Washington, D.C. Photo: Olivier Douliery/Pool via Getty Images

The state of Oklahoma filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration on Thursday in an attempt to block the enforcement of its vaccine mandate for federal employees.

Why it matters: The move comes one day after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin denied Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt's (R) request to exempt the state's National Guard from the mandate.

Congress passes stopgap funding bill to avert shutdown

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Senate voted 69-28 to pass legislation Thursday night to fund the government until February 18.

Why it matters: The move staves off a government shutdown but lawmakers still have a busy month ahead: Congress needs to work out a deal to raise the debt ceiling in a few weeks and Democrats are trying to pass their behemoth social spending bill.

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