ESO / L. Calcada
This artist's concept shows the newfound alien planet Alpha Centauri Bb, found in a three-star system just 4.3 light-years from Earth.
By Senior Writer
updated 10/16/2012 7:47:31 PM ET 2012-10-16T23:47:31

Astronomers have discovered an alien planet right in our solar system's backyard, but residents of Earth shouldn't get their hopes up for an exploration mission anytime soon. The newfound world is much too far away for probes to visit using current technology, experts say.

Researchers announced Tuesday that the scorching-hot alien planet Alpha Centauri Bb, which is about as massive as Earth, resides in the three-star Alpha Centauri system. While no other star is closer to our sun than the Alpha Centauri trio, they're still about 4.3 light-years away, making a close-up look at the planet pretty much impossible right now.

A robotic exoplanet mission launching today "would require about 40,000 years to get to Alpha Centauri," Greg Laughlin, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told reporters Tuesday. "So, given our propensity for instant gratification, that's not really an option that's on the table."

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But Laughlin, who was not involved in the discovery, added that attitudes could change if researchers made a few more intriguing discoveries in the Alpha Centauri system.

25 trillion miles away
One light-year is about 5.9 trillion miles. So the three stars in Alpha Centauri are more than 25 trillion miles from Earth. [Gallery: Nearby Alien Planet Alpha Centauri Bb]

To put this huge distance into perspective: NASA's Voyager 1 probe, the most far-flung object ever launched from Earth, is currently about 11.3 billion miles into its journey, cruising toward the edge of our solar system. Voyager 1 has thus covered less than 0.05 percent of the distance to Alpha Centauri Bb — and the probe has been zooming through space for more than 35 years.

New technologies needed
Alpha Centauri Bb sits just 3.6 million miles from its sunlike star, completing one orbit every 3.2 days. As a result, the planet's surface is far too hot to support life as we know it, researchers said.

But the solar systems containing a small, rocky world often have multiple planets, Laughlin said, so it's possible Alpha Centauri Bb has some siblings — perhaps even a world or two out in its host star's "habitable zone," the range of distances that can support liquid water.

If subsequent investigations do indeed find a potentially habitable planet circling Alpha Centauri B — or one of the other two stars in the system, Alpha Centauri A and Proxima Centauri — they may provide the push to get a probe out there, Laughlin said.

"You might see a groundswell of excitement to look at new kinds of propulsion technologies, new kinds of missions that could get to Alpha Centauri — not manned, but putting an unmanned probe there in a relatively short period of time, human-lifespan kinds of time frames," he said.

Of course, some researchers are already trying to develop next-generation, super-fast propulsion systems, which include such concepts as nuclear rockets and antimatter fusion drives.

Whenever such advanced technology becomes workable, it might send people as well as robotic probes hurtling toward Alpha Centauri; the system is one possible target of the 100 Year Starship initiative, a project that aims to lay the foundation for interstellar human spaceflight.

So anyone who longs for humanity to colonize other solar systems should probably be rooting for astronomers to find a planet somewhere in the habitable zones of the Alpha Centauri system.

"I think it really comes down to what the inventory of these stars looks like, whether there will be the extraordinary effort and excitement that are required to do those sorts of really groundbreaking things," Laughlin said.

Follow SPACE.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwallor SPACE.com @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebookand Google+.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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