Click-bait heading of a scientific story with a hopeful ending. Slow Motion Thought’s favourite sci-fi nerd Regan Fernandes aka D.R.R.TrollKill tells it like he sees it
Why it’s cool?
While we have been hunting for exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) for a couple of years now, we never had one this close before, that too in the habitable zone.
And it would also the first planet outside our solar system that we could be able to sort of explore. While we haven’t yet visited another planet with humans, we have sent robots and probes to almost every planetary body in our solar system.
|Pic Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser|
And now we’re aiming for the stars, quite literally. Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and real life super genius Stephen Hawking along with a host of backers that include social media mogul Mark Zuckerberg are helming a project called Breakthrough Starshot. It aims to send thousands of rice grain sized “starchips” to investigate nearby stars.
These starchips are carried by metre long “solar sails” propelled by super powerful lasers to upto 20% the speed of light. And while alpha Centauri AB (Proxima’s bigger brighter neighbouring twin system) was the initial target, the presence of a earth sized planet in the habitable zone around a star that can be reached in our or our children’s lifetimes is a big deal.
Why the hype?
While it’s really big news. Click bait mongers love to sell this as Earth 2.0. An untouched paradise … with water and air and possible life. In all honesty, we have no idea what we’re gonna find. All we know is that the planet is roughly the size of the earth and lies within the habitable zone of its star i.e that special zone where water can remain in the liquid form.
So, what’s the catch?
We have absolutely no way of directly observing it at the moment. We’ve observed of its gravitational effects on its parent star and it’s size (derived through the shadow it cast as passes in front of the star) to come to one solid conclusion. We know it’s a rocky planet like Mars and Earth as opposed to a gas giant like Saturn or Jupiter. But the predictions vary – it could well be a water world or barren desert wasteland or something in-between.
Unfortunately, Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf and it’s habitable zone is really close to its star. This makes it likely that the planet is exposed to sterilising outbursts of solar storms. Another problem with being that close to a star is the increased chance of the planet being tidally locked. So one side of the planet could be in perpetual day and a boiling hot hell, while the other would be in perpetual night and a frigid wasteland. Fun fact? This may result in a habitable belt between the day and night sides.
Why is it still huge news? In the end, it’s still an exoplanet close enough to theoretically be observed in our lifetime. And, that is something that many scientists said would be impossible a few years ago. I have always been an optimist as far as humanity’s future is concerned. While many people feel that humanity will live and die and eventually go extinct on this pale blue dot. I have hope that one day we will extend our reach to the stars and eventually conquer the galaxy.