October 24, 2012

ALPHA CENTAURI: Discovery Rekindles Wish For A Journey To The Stars.

For people who believe that interstellar voyages, either for people or for robots, are in the future, Alpha Centauri, a triple-star system that is the Sun’s nearest known neighbor, has always loomed large and close as a destination. It was the home of the mythical jungle world Pandora in James Cameron’s epic “Avatar,” for example.

The new planet doesn’t have jungles, giant blue-skinned cats or, as far as we know, the magical mineral unobtainium. It is, rather, a hellish unlivable blob of lava probably about the size of Earth, only four million short miles from the fires of Alpha Centauri B, the second brightest star in the system.

But if astronomers have learned anything over the last few years from devices like the Kepler satellite, it is that small planets come in packs. There is plenty of room in the system for more planets, habitable ones.

“I think we should drop everything and send a probe there,” said Sara Seager, an astronomer at M.I.T., echoing a call made last year by the exoplanet pioneer Geoff Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley.

There is in fact somebody in charge of doing something just like that. Her name is Mae Jemison, a former astronaut, engineer, dancer, actor and entrepreneur. This year she, in conjunction with the nonprofit foundation Icarus Interstellar, won a $500,000 government grant to set up 100 Year Starship, an organization that is to come up with a business plan for interstellar travel.

Faster, please.

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