Wednesday, August 31, 2016

SciFi to Reality – “New” planet discovery was fiction topic century ago!

The “new” discovery of supposedly five days ago is that there is a planet Proxima Centauri Bb, a planet orbiting close to a star 4.22 light years away. The find has been called "the biggest exoplanet discovery since the discovery of exoplanets." Now as we all know, SciFi has long been accredited with an eerie tendency to foreshadow actual events. Before I delve into this rather awesome discovery allow me to mention that it has been a part of my NASA Takes on the Galaxy presentation for around three or four years. (Basically I state that after the Moon, Mars, Europa, Titan, then Proxima Centauri Bb is next followed by Gliese 667c and the many planets that are ‘Earth-like’. (Could be three could be seven, depends who is right – I think seven but with a strange orbit on four of the planets! - Doesn’t really matter because the three everyone agrees on, they are all in the habitable zone.)

But back to Proxima Centauri Bb; Many SciFi authors throughout the years have written books about the planets of Alpha & Proxima Centauri since the early 1900’s. What is strange about that? Well, for one thing we didn’t have any telescopes powerful enough to know the star Proxima Centauri existed until 1915 and planets that far out became visible in the 1950’s, and it took to the 1990’s and the Hubble telescope to bring things better into view. With regard to Proxima Centauri Bb there is also the likely orbital rate of 500,000 years. (Why it wasn’t identified as a likely member of the now 3-star system of Alpha Centauri.) So as you can see, SciFi DOES predict actual science!

While there are literally dozens of instances including authors as well-known as Heinlein and Clarke to ones that are lesser known – short stories or full length novels, some that spoke of Alpha Centauri (such as “Revolt on Alpha C” by Robert Silverberg published in 1955), some Proxima Centauri (such as short story “Proxima Centauri” by Murry Leinster which first appeared in 1935 in an issue of Astounding Stories). In Lost in Space (1965) the television series about the Robinson family in space, the crew is frozen in suspended animation for the five-and-a-half year voyage to a known habitable planet of Alpha Centauri, on which they are to found a colony. In 1944 A. E. Vogt published Far Centaurus, a short story that speaks of A crew of Terran explorers who have been hibernating through a centuries-long voyage to Alpha Centauri discover on arrival that their technology has been radically superseded; humanity has arrived at the Alphan planet Pelham via superluminal travel long before them, and has long forgotten about them and their primitive mission. There were various episodes of Twilight Zone in the 1960’s that dealt with the Alpha Centauri System. And there are many more that were written decades earlier and hundreds in the 1050-1980’s. 

Now for some interesting facts about the planet: a possibly Earth-like planet orbiting the closest star, 4.22 light-years away. The planet's orbit is just right to allow liquid water on its surface, needed for life. But could it in fact be habitable?

Here are some facts about our newly discovered planet;

·       Proxima Centauri is 4.22 light-years away.

·       The planet is at least as big as Earth though could be many times more massive.

·       A year (the time it takes to orbit its star) is only 11 days.

·       Its star (Proxima Centauri B) is only 12% as big as our Sun & as a result much dimmer. As a result the planet likely has liquid water or heavy water or both.

·       Because Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf and a flare star, whether a planet orbiting it could support life is disputed

·       Its star Proxima Centauri B may  be the third star of a possible three star system – Alpha Centauri A, Alpha Centauri B, & Proxima Centauri B.

·       There is a possibility that there is a second planet in the system with an orbit near 200 days – but not proven.

·       The planet is believed to be “rocky” like Earth.

·       Believed to have offered a viable path to habitability AND possibly life; it may have started out as a hydrogen enveloped planet (such as Neptune) and evolved to something more Earth-like.

·       There are two possibilities of outcome based on the fact that Proxima Centauri flares far more frequently than our Sun. Either the planet’s rotation etc. allows for a strong enough magnetic field that the planet is protected from the flares or the atmospheric ozone may have been burned away. This possibility does not mean we can’t find life there as the surface may be protected and/or any life in water (Hydrogen is a natural deterrent to radiation) or perhaps underground could survive.

·       The planet may be tidally locked (means one side forever faces its star - such as our Moon is) and while it may make the existence of life more difficult (due to temperature variances etc.) thanks to planet wide atmospheric winds that would transport heat around the planet, it is not impossible.

·       Its star for the first 25 billion years likely was much brighter and hence the planet temperatures were too much for life as we know it. For the years since, it has been a more enjoyable

·       HISTORICALLY KNOWN!!! Alpha Centauri featured strongly in ancient Egypt, where many temples to various deities were built to have their principal features aligning with the point on the horizon where the star rose. Alpha Centauri was also known to the ancient Chinese, who knew it as the “Second Star of the Southern Gate”, whilst amongst the Australian Boorong people the star together with Epsilon Centauri was known as “Bermbermgle”, in reference to two brave brothers who slayed the Emu, represented by the Coal Sack nebula in the nearby Crux constellation.

·       While its axis doesn’t stand straight which is usually an indicator of seasons there are many other factors that come into play and so this becomes a question and not an answer.


Anyway, whatever details we find out over time, I would like to welcome to the neighborhood (again) Proxima Centauri b. AWESOME NAME! Can’t wait to go there.


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