Dark Speculation on Proxima Centuari and the Future of Humanity

proxima
Shining brightly in this Hubble image is our closest stellar neighbour: Proxima Centauri. Proxima Centauri lies in the constellation of Centaurus (The Centaur), just over four light-years from Earth. Although it looks bright through the eye of Hubble, as you might expect from the nearest star to the Solar System, Proxima Centauri is not visible to the naked eye. Its average luminosity is very low, and it is quite small compared to other stars, at only about an eighth of the mass of the Sun. However, on occasion, its brightness increases. Proxima is what is known as a “flare star”, meaning that convection processes within the star’s body make it prone to random and dramatic changes in brightness. The convection processes not only trigger brilliant bursts of starlight but, combined with other factors, mean that Proxima Centauri is in for a very long life. Astronomers predict that this star will remain middle-aged — or a “main sequence” star in astronomical terms — for another four trillion years, some 300 times the age of the current Universe. These observations were taken using Hubble’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2). Proxima Centauri is actually part of a triple star system — its two companions, Alpha Centauri A and B, lie out of frame. Although by cosmic standards it is a close neighbour, Proxima Centauri remains a point-like object even using Hubble’s eagle-eyed vision, hinting at the vast scale of the Universe around us.

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.

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They'll really publish anyone these days won't they?
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