Most of you have probably already heard the amazing news. An earth-sized planet has been found orbiting a ‘nearby’ star, and it might have water on its surface. Hooray!
Now for the bad news. A lot of people don’t seem realize how many orders of magnitude of difficulty leaving the solar system is over going to Mars, and how many more it is to get to Proxima Centuari. And we’re probably a lot further from getting humans safely to Mars and back than a lot of people think too. In a word, or rather three, space is hard.
Finding Proxima b is a baby step. It has taken 20 years to go from finding any planet to finding potentially habitable planets. My hope is that in another 20 years technology advances to the point where we can directly image these planets, and take spectra of the planets. The spectra would reveal what the atmosphere is made of. If we find planet atmospheres with water vapor and oxygen, or other gases that are far out of thermodynamic equilibrium, then we can start jumping up and down in our excitement about an actual living world. — You wouldn’t be a happy camper if you relocated to Proxima Centuari’s planet
I don’t want to focus here on the difficulties the trip or the radiation would likely pose. Instead, I’d like to consider a broader question — one posed famously by Carl Sagan all those years ago, “if we do not destroy ourselves, we will, one day, venture to the stars.”
There’s a slightly less optimistic way of framing this, of course. And that is that homo sapiens are fundamentally an invasive species. Turning it on its head, it remains no less true: “If we don’t always find new ecosystems to invade and exploit, we will one day destroy ourselves.”
This premise, that we are fundamentally invasive, may strike humanists and optimists alike as offensive, but it is grounded in more than mere opinion.