Home > Science, Star Trek > Alpha Centauri: It’s a beautiful place, you oughta see it

Alpha Centauri: It’s a beautiful place, you oughta see it

From Paul Gilster’s Centauri Dreams blog:

New Search for Centauri Planets Begins

Debra Fischer: Details of the Centauri Hunt

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.

  1. December 5, 2009 at 3:41 pm

    We also have a few cities of note on both of those human-held Trekverse worlds, whether recognized by Memory Alpha, Memory Beta or both, as I recall.

    Yeah, reality’s gonna give us all in the fiction trades a kick both fore and aft on this one, but the real-world payoff will, I agree, be worth the trade-off. Besides, we’re all assuming that every work of fiction’s set in its own alt-‘verse anyway from day one, right?

    No worries here. 😉

  2. Eli Berg-Maas
    March 25, 2012 at 11:56 pm

    I hadn’t known about the issues with gas giants at Alpha Centauri. I don’t know the precise reasons for it, but James Cameron generally goes in for accurate science fiction, at least in terms of physics. Avatar has the single most realistic starship in film. The floating mountains and rock arches are the product of magnetic levitation and the cooling of magnetic materials in strong magnetic fields as the crust cooled early in the planets life. Both are products of the superconductors their mining.

    That being said, aside from the physics, the science in Avatar is atrocious. Magnetic fields that strong would kill people, the economics of shipping cargo interstellar would make profit margins minimal even with the high price quoted for the Unobtainium in the film and generous efficiency assumptions, etc.

    And of course the Navi make no sense, not as humanoids, which is cliche but I’ll accept, but because they follow so few of the evolutionary paradigms shown by the rest of Pandoran life, with too few eyes and limbs. Nice to know someone else is bothered by that.

  3. August 16, 2012 at 10:52 am

    I should update this post to add that the latest research constrains Alpha Centauri’s age to around six and a half billion years, give or take 300 million: http://dx.doi.org/10.1051/0004-6361:20034203 So my estimates in The Buried Age are still valid.

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