Today came a news story that illustrates how hard progress is at the very frontiers of science. For both science and science fiction fans, the nearby star Tau Ceti (a sun-like star just 12 lightyears away) is legendary. In science, it was one of the two stars that Frank Drake searched for intelligent signals in his first SETI project back in 1960. In science fiction, many authors and screenwriters have used Tau Ceti as the home base of alien species.
Naturally, astronomers have searched for planets orbiting this star and no "obvious" planets (such as a big Jupiter-like planet) have been found. A key way astronomers find planets too dim to see with a telescope is to watch the effect of the planet's gravity on the much brighter star. As planets orbit a star, the star will appear to wiggle back and forth slightly, which sophisticated instruments can detect. (For the technically minded, we can take a spectrum -- spread out the light like a rainbow of colors -- and measure the motion of the star from the Doppler Effect.)
So an international team of astronomers has been analyzing 6000 previous observations of any possible "wiggle" of Tau Ceti from the pull of smaller planets to see if they can tease out any information when they combine the information gathered by three of the largest telescopes in the world, including the giant Keck Telescope in Hawaii. The complex analysis allows scientists to get down to smaller wiggles than have ever been observed before -- down to changes in the speed of the star of 2 miles per hour!
At this level, scientists are down to speeds that are "in the noise" -- smaller than the statistical variations in the observations and the movements of the star's own surface. As the experimenters themselves quickly say, this is new territory. Yet, when they do their best to model and explain the changes in the star's speed, their work is compatible with the possibility that there are five small planets orbiting Tau Ceti. One of these appears to be in the "habitable zone" where life like us may be comfortable.
The discoverers freely admit that it may take a decade to confirm that their tiny wiggles are real. But the possibility of planets around Tau Ceti -- coming so soon after the discovery of a planet around one of the stars in our nearest neighbor star system, Alpha Centauri -- brings new excitement to the idea that planets are going to be found around the majority of stars, even the ones nearby. More than 800 planets are now confirmed out there, and we have thousands of candidates in our catalogs. It's a wonderful universe!