Alpha Centauri: It’s a beautiful place, you oughta see it
From Paul Gilster’s Centauri Dreams blog:
There’s now a big push underway to try to detect an Earthlike planet around Alpha Centauri A or B. α Cen is the closest star system to our own (discounting any brown dwarfs not yet discovered), so it’s one of the best places to look for planets. Not to mention that it has two stars that are good candidates for hosting habitable planets. Simulations have shown that both stars have a very good chance of having terrestrial-mass planets in their habitable zones. So that improves the odds. Wouldn’t it be cool if they both had life-bearing planets?
And with all the searches now underway, if there’s anything there to find, we’ll almost certainly find it within the next 2-3 years. If we find a terrestrial planet (or two), then we can try to detect the spectral signatures of oceans, chlorophyll, oxygen, ozone, methane, and other biomarkers. If we knew there was life in the nearest star system, one we could theoretically reach in a human lifetime using some of the theoretical propulsion technologies that are routinely discussed on Gilster’s site (and in his book of the same name), it might spawn a new era of space exploration.
Here’s Solstation.com’s detailed overview of the Alpha Centauri system.
In Star Trek, we know canonically of a University of Alpha Centauri, a planet called Centauri VII, and a Proxima colony and Proxima Maintenance Yards, presumably located around Proxima Centauri, the red-dwarf C component of the system, which is in a wide orbit around the main binary pair and is currently the closest star to Sol System (hence “Proxima”). And we know that Zefram Cochrane, the inventor of warp drive, emigrated to Alpha Centauri later in his life. Past Trek novels (notably Crisis on Centaurus by Brad Ferguson) postulated a colony on Centauri IV.
Quoting from my annotations for The Buried Age:
But according to recent simulations performed by Elisa Quintana et al., the gravity of Alpha Centauri B would have prevented more than 3-5 planets from forming around Centauri A (with A’s gravity allowing only 2-4 around B). Quintana’s simulations generally place either the second or third planet (or both) in Centauri A’s habitable zone, which is why I went with Centauri III instead of the Centauri IV seen in TOS: Crisis on Centaurus.
I reconciled “Centauri VII” by making it the second planet of α Cen B, “added to” the five planets of the A star.
But who knows? In just a few years, some of my guesses from TBA may well be obsolete. One might be already. At the time I wrote TBA, it was estimated that α Cen was 2 billion years older than Sol, but then a paper came out suggesting it was half a billion years younger. Such are the occupational hazards of SF.
Poor James Cameron. His upcoming Avatar takes place on an inhabited moon of a gas giant around Alpha Centauri, but radial-velocity observations have ruled out the possibility of a gas giant-sized planet in that system. So his movie’s already been contradicted before it even came out. Then again, based on the clips I’ve seen, the planet does seem to have mountains floating in midair, not to mention implausibly humanoid aliens, so maybe scientific accuracy isn’t a priority there.
Still, just think — before much longer, before there’s even time to make a sequel to Avatar, we’ll probably know if there are real planets around Alpha Centauri and whether they have a chance of supporting life. It’s exciting to be so close.