Starts With A Bang

How Science Can Learn More About ‘Proxima b’ And All Earth-Like Worlds (Synopsis)

An artist’s rendition of Proxima b orbiting Proxima Centauri. Image credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser.

“Our existence in this place, this microscopic corner of the cosmos, is fleeting. With utter disregard for our wants and needs, nature plays out its grand acts on scales of space and time that are truly hard to grasp. Perhaps all we can look to for real solace is our endless capacity to ask questions and seek answers about the place we find ourselves in.” -Caleb Scharf

Now that we’ve learned the nearest star to our Sun, Proxima Centauri, has a rocky planet at the right distance for liquid water, it’s time to consider how we might learn the answers to our burning questions about it and all nearby Earth-like exoplanets. What’s the atmosphere like, and what does it consist of? What does the surface of the world look like, and what’s on it? And is there life, or intelligent life, present at all?

Image credit: PHL @ UPR Arecibo, as of 2015. This number has almost doubled since this image was published, and at a distance of 4.24 light years, Proxima b is now the closest of all.

There are three ways to conduct these searches, and they’re all complementary. We can use giant ground-based telescopes, including arrays of telescopes, for high-resolution spectroscopic images of these worlds. We can use space-based telescopes with coronagraphs or starshades to image these worlds directly over time. Or we could undertake a journey across space, and visit the system directly to obtain in situ measurements we could never get from afar.

If you don’t mind your spacecraft payload being the size of a microchip, a laser sail could get you up to 20% the speed of light. Image credit: Breakthrough Starshot, of the laser sail concept for a “starchip” spaceship.

If this doesn’t inspire you to invest in astronomy and learning more about the Universe, perhaps nothing will!