Nearby Earth-Sized Alien Planet Could Spur Interstellar Exploration
The recent discovery of an Earth-size alien planet right next door to us could help spark humanity’s first true exploration steps beyond our own solar system, scientists say.
Image: This wide-field view of the sky around the bright star Alpha Centauri was created from photographic images forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2. The star appears so big just because of the scattering of light by the telescope’s optics as well as in the photographic emulsion. Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to the Solar System. Image released Oct. 17, 2012. Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2
Future space telescopes — such as NASA’s proposed Terrestrial Planet Finder and the European Space Agency’s Darwin instrument — could search for signs of life on promising worlds that may neighbor Alpha Centauri Bb, said veteran planet hunter Geoff Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley.
“Those missions can not only image planets in the habitable zone but take spectra of them, to assess the chemical composition of the atmosphere of the planet,” Marcy told SPACE.com via email. “There is a prospect, with planets around Alpha Cen B, to search for bio-signatures in the atmosphere of any planets in the habitable zone.”
That would be exciting enough. But Marcy and some of his colleagues hold out hope that humanity will get a much closer look at the Alpha Centauri system someday — and they think now is a good time to get the ball rolling.
“There is now great impetus to send a probe with a camera to Alpha Cen to study the three stars there (including Proxima Centauri) and to study the planets and moons there,” Marcy said. “What a rich opportunity for NASA and ESA, working with all nations on Earth, to send a probe to Alpha Centauri, galvanizing interest from people of all ages around the world.”
Such a mission is not practical with today’s spacecraft, which would take tens of thousands of years to travel the 25 trillion miles (40 trillion kilometers) to Alpha Centauri. So researchers will have to come up with new, superfast propulsion systems — perhaps nuclear rockets, antimatter fusion drives or another such advanced technology in the early stages of development today.
Marcy thinks the United States should aim to launch a robotic spacecraft toward Alpha Centauri by the year 2100.