The Stars Our Destination

This artist’s impression shows a view of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. The double star Alpha Centauri AB also appears in the image to the upper-right of Proxima itself. Proxima b is a little more massive than the Earth and orbits in the habitable zone around Proxima Centauri, where the temperature is suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser.

This week — a really momentous week for science — astronomers have found evidence for an Earth-like and perhaps habitable planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the closest star to Earth. A paper describing this milestone finding was published in the journal Nature on 25 August 2016 (a free PDF is here). The awesome Breakthrough Starshot project team, which wants to beam the first nanoprobes to the stars in only a few decades, is meeting this week. It seems that we have a match.

The Starshot probe is a highly miniaturized system on a chip, propelled by a 4-meter lightsail built with advanced nano-engineered metamaterials. The probe and its lightsail, both weighing only a few grams, pushed by light beams from high-power (100 gigawatt) lasers on Earth, accelerated to 20 percent of the speed of light, could be launched (lots of them) in two or three decades and reach Proxima in two more decades.

I hope the discovery of the planet around Proxima will accelerate the Starshot project. If things go according to plans (things seldom do, but optimism feels good), some readers will be alive when the first data and images come back. I hope to see at least the launch before logging off.

Perhaps the probes could be manned by AIs or human uploads. I would most certainly volunteer.

The planet orbiting Proxima is being called Proxima b. I hope the name is temporary and a better one will be found. Perhaps the planet could be called “Per Ardua,” like the fictional planet in Stephen Baxter’s Proxima (see my review here), which has surprising similarities with Proxima b.

The Stars Our Destination! We have a place to go, a first stop on the sacred road to the stars.

Pale Red Dot: “ We had a press release event at ESO today. We want to thank everyone for the passion and effort shared in this project, including the Breakthrough Starshot foundation and its chair Pete Worden for giving us their support. We hope to reach the stars, there is a foundation to promote technological advancements, and now we have a target. The sky is the limit!”

ESO press release: “Astronomers using ESO telescopes and other facilities have found clear evidence of a planet orbiting the closest star to Earth, Proxima Centauri. The long-sought world, designated Proxima b, orbits its cool red parent star every 11 days and has a temperature suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface. This rocky world is a little more massive than the Earth and is the closest exoplanet to us — and it may also be the closest possible abode for life outside the Solar System.”

Centauri Dreams: “ Having been at the Breakthrough Starshot meetings all this week, I’m delighted to see that we now have a potential destination; i.e. an actual rather than assumed planet around one of the stars in the system nearest to us… Breakthrough Starshot has made no decisions about its target at this point, but it’s clear that Proxima b is going to be a prime contender.”