Four planets in ‘habitable zones’ spotted within spitting distance of Earth.
‘Spitting distance’ sounds really close. How close? One system is 12 light years away, the other 22. So, um, if you can spit at the speed of light – unlikely – and were a very, very good aim, you could conceivably besmirch a planet orbiting one of these stars in a mere couple of decades or so.
Piece of cake.
However, since we don’t have warp drive, even on the drawing table, it seems that ‘spitting distance’ must mean something along the lines of: theoretically close enough for the great grandchildren of the initial astronauts to reach, assuming people can even live that long and reproduce healthy, fertile offspring in space.
These words – I do not think they mean what you think they mean.
Nonetheless, if you can get past the breathless, nonsensical headlines, this is actually real news about an important technique: astronomers have created a method to check for planets on nearby stars by statistically analyzing the star’s spectrum over time. I assume that, as the star and its planet(s) orbit around their common center(s) of gravity, the star appears to wobble slightly, with its spectrum shifting around – it’s a red-then-blue shift as the star alternately moves away from and then towards us as it swings back and forth around the center of gravity. But the article doesn’t spell that out. Could be something else entirely, but I can’t imagine what at the moment.
So, while the light – and the spectrums – from stars fluctuates all the time, the particular rhythmic fluctuations caused by planets should be detectable. To do so, you’d need to filter out somehow all the random noise – sunspots, who knows what – and that’s what the statistical analysis does. Somebody far better than I am statistics would need to explain how that works – I have an idea, but should keep my mouth shut on such matters.
So, despite the goofy headlines, sometimes Science! does march on! Woo Hoo!