The Nearest Earth

It’s one thing to miss your exit on the Santa Monica Freeway, but something else to blithely sail past an entire star system.

If you’re a fan of 1960s television, you might recall that’s exactly what happened to Professor John Robinson and his family in the vaguely imbecilic series, “Lost in Space.” These pioneering colonists, shot into the vacuum voids of the cosmos aboard the unambitiously named Jupiter 2, intended to settle on a planet circling the double-star system known as Alpha Centauri. Unfortunately, a saboteur inadvertently forced them off-course, and they eventually alighted on an unknown world around an unnamed star. Danger ensued.

Fifty years ago, the idea that Alpha Centauri – which is the nearest star system to the Sun – might host a livable planet was, like the TV show itself, dubious fiction. But now a team of creative NASA scientists is designing a telescope to see if this world might actually exist. The team reckons they have a better-than-even chance to find it.

Unlike when the Space Family Robinson decided to quit Earth, today we know a lot about worlds orbiting other suns. In particular, it’s now clear that most stars have planetary consorts. The tally of confirmed and suspected exoplanets exceeds 5,000 – impressive bounty from two decades of astronomical effort.

But with so much real estate already on the books, you might wonder why anyone would brighten at the thought of finding one more world. Well, there’s now some serious talk (albeit only talk) of launching rockets to the stars, and Alpha Centauri is 30 percent closer than Barnard’s star, the next one out. So if humans ever do send emissaries – either instruments or passengers – beyond our own cosmic doorstep, a habitable planet at Alpha Centauri will be a —> Read More