October 18, 2012
Scientists have now discovered an exoplanet orbiting our nearest neighbor star system. This is as good as it gets for both science fact and science fiction.
The discovery, announced earlier this week, is that a planet has been found orbiting Alpha Centauri B, a part of the Alpha Centauri system that also includes stars Alpha Centauri A and Proxima Centauri. It is the smallest discovered so far, the mass of 1.1 Earths, but it is too close to the star to possibly hold any sort of life. The estimated surface temperature tops 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit.
I have already seen posts online from people asking whether we should send a probe to study this planet. I think most curious people would support that, but even our closest neighbor is 4.3 light years away from us. That means a massless little photon would take 4.3 years to travel from here to there. Obviously any probe would have mass, and the estimated fastest travel time based on our current propulsion technology is about 40,000 years -- one way.
So obviously this is a little far away. Just a few days prior to this announcement, another planet mostly made out of diamond was discovered 40 light years away. When I heard about that one, I figured the people from Jared would love to figure out a way to travel 40 lights years to mine that sucker. But again, not going to happen with the technology we have now.
But the good news is this means planets are being found very close to us in both distance and mass. Most astronomers figure the best chance for life on another planet is one that is fairly close to Earth's mass. We know life can work on a planet like this, with enough gravity to hold us down but not crush us. A planet with a little more mass may support life but have much less chance of tall creatures like giraffes and elephants.
The continued discovery of planets, especially nearby, means astronomers can develop new devices to possibly detect life. The obvious method is various telescopes, whether they see visible light, infrared, X-rays or something else. But some devices can scan light for certain wavelengths that various elements give off. If an atmosphere has detectable methane, that may signify life because, well, life produces a lot of methane.
This also opens up some more-believable paths for sci-fi creators. When "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" were hits, the thought of visiting distant planets orbiting different stars was pure science fiction. For about two decades we have known that planets exist outside our solar system. Now we know they exist in the closest system.
Science fiction still has leaps to take with methods of travel between stars, but as time goes on even that may enter the realm of the possible. It's a good time to study planets.
Michael Buckelew is a contributing writer for the Gwinnett Daily Post.