Alien planet hunting is a big thing, and now the clever boffins who use their tech to find these "extrasolar" planets have pulled off something rather amazing. They've discovered a planet that could be a lot like Earth and it's in orbit around a well-known star called Tau Ceti in the constellation Cetus. That means it's just 12 light years away, which is—in terms of the sheer mind boggling enormousness of space—just next door.
Tau Ceti is also a star that's a lot like our own Sun. It gives out roughly the same sort of light at similar energy levels, even while it's only about 78% of the size of the Sun. For these reasons alone it's a regular feature in science fiction.
The real discovery here is that Tau Ceti has five planets orbiting around it. And one of them sits happily in the "goldilocks zone," which means its orbit exposes it to similar light and energy as our planet is (i.e., it's not too hot, not too cold). And since Tau Ceti is very sun-like, this means the planet could be very Earth-like. Better yet because it's only 12 light years away, it's plausible that if any alien life exists on the planet we could detect signals from it. Planetary scientists are even more excited than alien hunters, though, because its proximity means we may be able to investigate the planet's atmosphere.
Does the search for alien planets excite you culturally, scientifically or even just out of curiosity? Or does the hunt for real E.T.s make you nervous?
[Image of Cetus: Flickr user jabberwock]