Friday, September 9, 2016


 Scientists from the European Southern Observatory caused a stir this week when they announced the discovery of a planet circling the nearest star to Earth’s own Sol. And not just any old planet, either, but one situated in the so-called “Goldilocks” zone, close enough to the star Proxima to be capable of sustaining liquid water on its surface. The planet, dubbed “Proxima b,” is thought to be rocky and just slightly larger than our own Earth, both conditions that might lead us to think it capable of providing an environment conducive to life.

The Proxima system is the closest solar system to Earth at 4.23 light years. So to find a possibly habitable planet in that system is enough to have heads spinning both in the scientific community and among those whose business it is to mix science and fiction. Another Earth! And practically on our cosmic doorstep!

Artist's rendition of the surface of Proxima b.
Yet for those without much imagination, Proxima b is likely to be something of a disappointment. The planet orbits a red dwarf star, which gives off little heat and not much visible light. And, even though the position of the planet in close orbit compensates in some ways for the low energy output of its star, photosynthesis as we currently know it would not be possible.
Then poor Proxima b is locked in a permanent one-sided relationship with its sun. That is, one hemisphere of the planet is always facing the star (and is thus constantly blasted with heat and radiation), while one hemisphere is always faced away (freezing and desolate). Solar flares and other hazards of the planet’s location close to the unstable red dwarf would make survival on the “day” side dicey. No access to heat or light on the “night” side would make it impossible. Life as we know it could only develop in the twilight zones between the two hemispheres.
Vision for whatever creatures do manage to emerge on Proxima b would be quite different from ours, tuned to the longer wavelengths of the infrared, rather than the shorter ultra-violet rays created by a yellow sun at the peak of its life cycle. They would also be used to a very quick “year” (eleven of our days to make an orbit around Proxima) and no “days” to speak of.
Now a writer with imagination could make a lot of those significant differences from our Earth. I can’t wait to read the first stories about invasion, uh, contact  with the aliens from Proxima b.

Information for this post drawn from: Forbes Magazine, "Starts With a Bang" blog, Ethan Siegle, Contributor, September 6,2016


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