Now Humanity Feels the Tug of Proxima b, Too

artist’s impression shows the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri

Artist’s impression of the planet orbiting Proxima Centauri
Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Caption: “This artist’s impression shows the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. The double star Alpha Centauri AB also appears in the image between the planet and Proxima itself. Proxima b is a little more massive than the Earth and orbits in the habitable zone around Proxima Centauri, where the temperature is suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface.”

It’s good to be skeptical, but it’s also nice to see rumors confirmed by real and exciting  announcements: the European Southern Observatory (ESO) announced today the detection of an exoplanet orbiting the nearby star Proxima Centauri. At a minimum mass 1.3 times that of the Earth’s, Proxima b might be a rocky world. With an orbit of 11.2 days around a red dwarf smaller and cooler than our Sun, it might be a wet rocky world. And if there’s liquid water on the surface of Proxima b, then there might be conditions for life. All those mights? Good reasons to continue studying this object, especially because it’s so near.

The exoplanet was detected by measuring the wobble it causes its parent star.  There are currently no telescopes capable of taking a direct image of Proxima b, but such telescopes are expected to become available around 2018. Over the next several years, these and other technologies should give scientists the means to pin down the size and mass of Proxima b, detect an atmosphere if there is one, and perhaps even tease out the composition of the exoplanet and any atmospheric gasses.

But just knowing that Proxima b is out there and having a rough estimate for its mass is a big step forward in planetary research and the search for extraterrestrial life. From previous research such as the Kepler Mission, we know the majority of stars have planets, and many of them have rocky planets. Now that we’ve detected Proxima b around our nearest stellar neighbor, it seems even more likely that there are worlds out there that can support life.

Proxima b at 4.25 light years (1.295 parsecs) away is still too far for us to reach in a reasonable amount of time with our best current space travel technology, but it’s tantalizingly close to urge us to improve our remote sensing capabilities and investigate new approaches to interstellar travel. Do you feel the tug  from beyond our own solar system to explore? Our own solar system is fascinating enough. Now we’ve got a new planetary destination just one star over, beckoning us to come visit.

a view of the southern skies over the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile with images of the stars Proxima Centauri (lower-right) and the double star Alpha Centauri AB (lower-left) from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope

The location of Proxima Centauri in the southern skies
Credit: Y. Beletsky (LCO)/ESO/ESA/NASA/M. Zamani
Caption: This picture combines a view of the southern skies over the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile with images of the stars Proxima Centauri (lower-right) and the double star Alpha Centauri AB (lower-left) from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Proxima Centauri is the closest star to the Solar System and is orbited by the planet Proxima b, which was discovered using the HARPS instrument on the ESO 3.6-metre telescope.

Frontier Channel 16 Years Later

I started posting online news and commentary about science and technology on January 18, 2000, and I eventually named that effort Frontier Channel. After a few weeks of short posts, I didn’t get back to posting again until January 2002. Two years after that, I finally started posting in earnest, and Frontier Channel enjoyed a nice run with frequent articles through about 2007. I really enjoyed researching and writing the articles and redesigning and updating the website. I eventually interviewed scientists, launched a podcast (RADIO Frontier Channel), and learned a lot about journalism and graphic and web design.

The Frontier Channel website is now defunct, but I merged all those articles with my personal website a couple years ago. Now I’m beginning the long process of cleaning up those old articles by adding back images and deleting broken links.

One fun aspect of this work is rereading those old articles and recalling what was most interesting to me back then. In the year 2000, for example, I was most fascinated by fuel cells, the web, and astronomy. It’s amusing to see how hyperbolic my writing could get. Several headlines end in exclamation points, and some of the reporting is pretty breathless. For example, in “Media Fusion Feature Coming Soon!” I was really excited about a company that promised to “pass data over power lines at speeds in excess of 2.5 GB/sec.” Turns out the claim was fraudulent. Today Google Fiber offers internet speeds up to 1 Gbps over fiber optics, cable companies are seeking similar speeds over cable lines, and there are power-line adaptors for home networking, but nothing now or on the horizon promises anywhere near the speeds Media Fusion was claiming back then.

I was also really excited in January 2000 about the launch of Transmeta and its super-efficient Crusoe mobile chip, the merger between AOL and Time Warner, and the W3C recommendation of XHTML 1.0. Things didn’t turn out as expected, though. Transmeta eventually folded. The AOL-Time Warner merger eventually failed. XHTML eventually gave way to HTML5. What do I know.

It’s also interesting to see now how scientific discoveries from around 2000 have been confirmed or not since then. For example, in “Black Hole“, I linked to a Space.com article (the link is now defunct and I cannot find their article online) about the X-ray image of the region around a black hole in the Andromeda Galaxy, taken by the Chandra X-ray Observatory. The original image suggested to scientists that the black hole was cooler in temperature than expected. Only a year later, however, additional analysis revealed that the black hole was not as cool as it first seemed. Don’t worry, black holes are still cool, just not in temperature.

I’m now writing new articles, and while I don’t plan to commit the same amount of time to the project as I did in the past, I’m using Frontier Channel as the brand to categorize them. Have I learned anything about writing since I started in 2000? I like to think so. My excitement is tempered by more skepticism, I think, and I tend to research more and write more in-depth content.

But I can’t promise there won’t be exclamation points at the end of some of my new headlines.

Regarding Rumors of Earth-Like Planet Orbiting Proxima Centauri

By ESA/Hubble, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29263039
By ESA/Hubble, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29263039

We’ve been here before: the media gets wind of a possible discovery made by a long-running science project and before there is a peer-reviewed scientific paper published and a press conference, speculation runs wild. In the age of social media, gossip spreads at the speed of the share, and in this digital game of telephone, the results are often more indicative of our collective imagination than of reality. What is often true about these occurrences is that there is indeed something interesting to announce. What is often not true are the specifics dreamed up by the rumor mill.

Yesterday, my Twitter feed erupted with links to articles like “Scientists to unveil new Earth-like planet: report” from Phys.org and “An Earth-like Planet Might be Orbiting Proxima Centauri” from Discover Magazine. These were articles written quickly in response to the original report, “Wissenschaftliche Sensation: Mögliche zweite Erde in unserer Nachbarschaft entdeckt“, that appeared in the German weekly Der Spiegel.

What’s so potentially exciting about this news is that Proxima Centauri is the nearest star to our Sun. It’s 4.2 light years away, just a little closer even than the other two stars it seems to be gravitationally bound to, Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B. If there is a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri that is Earth-like, then it is by far the closest Earth-like exoplanet (planets around other stars) yet discovered.

But what exactly does “Earth-like” mean? To a scientist, the comparator “-like” often indicates characteristics like rough diameter or mass. Even though Venus is a hellish world of temperatures hot enough to melt lead underneath a thick atmosphere of carbon dioxide with clouds of sulfuric acid, it is “Earth-like” in terms of its diameter and mass. Recent “3-D climate simulations” of Venus carried out by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies suggest the possibility that Venus in the distant past was potentially habitable (Way, M. J.A. D. Del GenioN. Y. KiangL. E. SohlD. H. GrinspoonI. AleinovM. Kelley, and T. Clune (2016), Was Venus the First Habitable World of our Solar System?Geophys. Res. Lett.43, doi:10.1002/2016GL069790.) Being approximately the same diameter and mass as the Earth or being potentially habitable doesn’t imply that Venus was ever really all that much like Earth, though, let alone had liquid water on the surface or gave rise to life.

So the discovery of an Earth-like planet around another star isn’t the discovery of aliens, though this is certainly what many people would like to hear, and that’s where the speculation often tends to go. But the only real information we can glean about exoplanets using current technology and research is limited to one or more or fewer of the following: a range of possible diameters and masses, approximate distance from the parent star, and whether or not that orbit is within a theoretical region around the parent star known as the “habitable zone.” This zone is a region where models suggest a planet with the right atmospheric pressure, composition, and mass could support liquid water on its surface. The Earth seems to be in just the right zone in our solar system for temperate climates with long-standing bodies of surface water, and since this is the only example of such conditions we know of in the entire universe, scientists have modeled where these same conditions might exist around other stars, some of them like our Sun, and others very different, whether bigger or smaller, hotter or colder, solitary or part of binary or greater collections of gravitationally-bound stars.

The habitable zone sounds nice, but both Venus and Mars are in the modeled habitable zone around our Sun, and look how unpleasant and free of long-standing bodies of surface water they are. Even given an Earth-sized planet at an Earth-like distance from a Sun-like star, it is unlikely that such a planet would have all the other conditions required for oceans or life as we know it.

The truth is that you and I and the media don’t have any information about this rumored planet in orbit around Proxima Centauri. All the articles published to date are just rumor, with none of the details necessary to put constraints on what is supposed to be announced. I’m not saying that there isn’t going to be an announcement (the rumors say that this will happen at the end of August), but we certainly don’t have anything to go on other than an initial report that is light on details and doesn’t include confirmation from any of the scientists alleged to be involved. If the rumor turns out to be true, that’s wonderful, but even then, it’s not yet clear that this planet will be described as “Earth-like” or “potentially-habitable.” I can predict with nearly 100% confidence, however, that scientists won’t be announcing the discovery of surface bodies of water or alien life.

That’s the pace of science: glacial compared to the pace of rumor. Knowledge progresses at the pace of data gathering and analysis, confirmation, peer-review, additional studies, new research approaches, and the accrual of additional evidence. This is a step-by-step process, so even if there is an Earth-like planet in the habitable zone of Proxima Centauri, there will be much more investigation required and technology and techniques to be refined and even invented before scientists can give us a clear picture of just what might be out there.

Today, though, all we have are a rumor, speculation, and the possibility that nothing will be announced after all.

Hype Robs Me of Sleep

I have worked the graveyard shift for several months. Twice now I have resisted going right to bed after work so that I could instead watch on television the unveiling of new technology.

In December 2001 I watched the unveiling of “It”, otherwise known by the code name Ginger, on ABC’s Good Morning America. In January 2002 I watched Steve Jobs’ MacWorld address on TechTV and his announcement of a new flat-panel iMac.

I wish I had just gone to sleep. My dreams would have been more exciting.

Let me say before I continue that I think both devices are interesting. I am actually considering buying both if I ever have the money. What has angered me about the experience is the hype that lead up to both unveilings.

The Segway Personal Transport to Media Madness

In the first example, the company and inventor, Dean Kamen, were not to blame for the hype that preceded the introduction of the Segway Personal Transport. A leak to Insider.com (now defunct) resulted in January 2001 in the number one question on the nation’s mind – “What is ‘It’?”

There were speculations and rumors of flying cars, hovercrafts, Sterling Engines, and perpetual motion machines. Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com and Steve Jobs of Apple apparently were blown away in secret presentations. The invention, whatever it was, would change the way cities were built. The world was about to change.

It is fair to see that many were disappointed when the Segway Personal Transport was shown on Good Morning America. Diane Sawyer asked immediately after the sheet was pulled from the device “That’s it?”

No, Diane, that is not it, but we all understand what you meant. Even as I hurried to my computer to bring up http://www.segway.com, as I raptly read each small detail regarding the true breakthroughs (human-like balancing in a small device and a user interface that should put all website designers to shame), I could not help hearing the echo of “That’s it?” in my head. The thing is a scooter. A scooter is neither a flying car nor a hovercraft, it does not use a Sterling Engine, and there is nothing perpetual about it.

Take this, Jobs, and shove it

Steve Jobs both fascinates and annoys me. I was never more aware of this duplicity than during his keynote address during Macworld 2002.

The guy is genuinely excited about what he does. He seems to be involved in every aspect of the Apple business. The devices and software his company develops are some of the most beautiful and user friendly in existence, and he has a flare for presentation.

But the guy is also annoying as hell. His flare does not make up for the fact that new devices and software unveiled are incrementally better in nature rather than revolutionary.

If you had visited the Apple.com site just prior to the show, you would have been welcome with a new message every day for a week hyping some major announcement at the show.

“Where no PC has gone before.”
“Beyond the rumor sites. Way beyond”

The rumor sites picked up on the vibe and reached for new levels of speculation, including an elaborate hoax (including video!) of a new Apple PDA called the iWalk. Whatever the announcement was for, it was certainly not going to be for a new flat-panel version of the iMac…the rumor sites had been talking about that for months.

A new flat-panel version of the iMac was of course the major announcement.

Perhaps we have lost the early thrill and romance for technology. The Segway Personal Transport and flat-panel iMac truly are interesting, have a lot of potential, and make use of some fascinating technology. However, we want to be tempted by someone new who will change our lives forever, a pretty new face we have only fantasized about. This want underlies the hype leading up to the above devices. It underlies my own lack of sleep on those two respective mornings.

I will continue to choose not to sleep because I hope someday the technology announcement will far exceed the preceding hype. I that day I will cry out in awe, laugh my crazy head off in delight, run to the bank for a quick loan, and call up all my relatives and friends to let them know that the world has just changed.

Until then, I guess I will just sit here yawning and repeating to myself “That’s it?”

The Frontier Channel Technology Fund

This fund currently consists of stock in two technology companies:

  • 153.162 shares of Constellation 3D, Inc. [defunct link] (Nasdaq: CDDD)
  • 63.953 shares of Electric Fuel Corporation (Nasdaq: EFCX)

The total purchase price of these shares has been $1109.97.

At the close of the market on Friday, January 18, 2002 the value of this fund was $203.20

Black Hole

"Chandra X-ray Image with Scale Bar" - Image Credit: NASA/CXC/SAO
Chandra X-ray Image with Scale Bar
Image Credit: NASA/CXC/SAO
Image Caption: “This X-ray image shows the central portion of the Andromeda Galaxy. The blue dot in the center of the image is an unusual “cool” million degree X-ray source of unknown nature. Just above this cool source is a source (yellow) that is thought to be due to X-rays from matter swirling toward a supermassive black hole in the nucleus of the galaxy. This black hole contains the mass of 30 million suns. Numerous other X-ray sources are also apparent. Most of these are probably due to X-ray binary systems, in which a neutron star or black hole is in a close orbit around a normal star.”

Chandra, the X-Ray Space Observatory, has been sending back some amazing pictures. Space.com has a great one here [defunct link] of a possible black hole discovered in the Andromeda galaxy.

Europa Rain

More evidence that the Jovian moon Europa might be a haven for life…life needs heat and charged particles raining down on Europa just might be providing it. Here is another great article [defunct link] from Space.com. Look for a feature in the near future about the possibility of life elsewhere in our Solar System.