Where oh where are they?

by on October 16, 2012 at 10:56 pm in Data Source, Philosophy, Religion, Science, Travel | Permalink

Bringing the search for another Earth about as close as it will ever get, a team of European astronomers was scheduled to announce on Wednesday that it had found a planet the same mass as Earth’s in Alpha Centauri, a triple star system that is the Sun’s closest neighbor, only 4.4 light-years away.

Here is more.  Planets, planets everywhere…

1 Alex Godofsky October 16, 2012 at 11:16 pm

Time to build the USS Unity.

2 Zachary October 17, 2012 at 8:46 am

+1 and Props for Nerdom.

3 Mark Thorson October 17, 2012 at 10:00 am

Don’t you mean the Jupiter 2?

4 Dylan October 17, 2012 at 10:18 am

It’ll just get stolen.

5 rationalist October 19, 2012 at 2:35 am

+2 for alpha centauri reference

6 Chris October 16, 2012 at 11:26 pm

I always knew Sid Meier had “contacts”.

7 Edward Burke October 16, 2012 at 11:51 pm

The “only 4.4.light years away” postscript was a nice touch, thank you, NYT. Voyager 1. the c. 1500-lb. probe launched in 1977, has only this year reached the margin of our sun’s heliosphere. I don’t understand that its itinerary is taking it even close to Alpha Centauri, but were it headed that way, it would not be arriving for another seven, eight, nine, or ten decades. It’s time we begin to disabuse ourselves of Star Trek, 2001, Star Wars, and Prometheus notions of interstellar travel aboard glorified battleships and cargo ships, as if space exploration can be conducted with craft that are merely updated versions of longboats, galleys, and caravels, catamarans, brigantines, or paddlewheels staffed with crews with UN sensibilities and PC demographics: unless or until our friends at the LHC discover not new forms of propulsion for nifty-keen titanium and composite spacecraft but actually novel ways of opening portals THROUGH spacetime to accommodate much more modest adventuring, I think we can safely assume that humanity will remain mostly terrestrial for centuries yet to come, and the Universe can thus continue to sleep well most nights. The trouble with contemporary physics seems that its advances are making contemporary science fiction premises wholly untenable, but of course Hollywood won’t get the memo, nor will anyone who watches Hollywood SF spectaculars with avidity.

8 Rahul October 17, 2012 at 1:01 am

Another relevant detail:

This “earth like” planet has a surface temperature of 1200 C.

9 Ranjit Suresh October 17, 2012 at 1:17 am

Extrasolar planets discovered thus far are skewed towards worlds in tight orbits largely because they’re inherently easier to detect and confirm.

It takes less time to confirm a planet if its years last only three days, as in the case of this planet from the Alpha Centauri system, than it does if it takes over 365 days.

Give astronomers a couple decades – they’ll be able to find tons of planets that are earth-like not just in size but in distance from their stars and presence in habital zones.

10 Rahul October 17, 2012 at 1:31 am

“Bringing the search for another Earth about as close as it will ever get,”

That headline sounds like we are already there; not that we’ll get there a couple of decades later!

11 Finch October 17, 2012 at 10:26 am

Maybe charitably, I think they meant close in distance, not time.

12 Doug October 17, 2012 at 2:58 am

“It’s time we begin to disabuse ourselves of Star Trek, 2001, Star Wars, and Prometheus notions of interstellar travel aboard glorified battleships and cargo ships, as if space exploration can be conducted with craft that are merely updated versions of longboats, galleys, and caravels, catamarans, brigantines, or paddlewheels”

Sure it doesn’t make sense to accelerate massive spacecraft filled with humans to relativistic speeds.

However in 50-100 years it should be more than possible to slap together a self-replicating 3D printer and a very smart AI into a package that weighs a few milligrams. Accelerating suck a tiny probe to say 0.5c would only take on the order of one commercial tank of jet fuel (~10^12 J).

Such probes could easily arrive in other star systems, very quickly build energy collectors, computational and manufacturing capacity, relay back their findings to Earth and spread more probes from their vantage point. Once they’ve set up AI agents could easily be across star systems as cheap light-speed radio transmissions. Software is far easier to move than hardware, so simply use your 3D printers to set up all the hardware you need.

Using such a system large chunks of the galaxy could easily be colonized a few millenia. If you question why it’s worth it, consider that once we harvest all the output of our sun that’s it. Having infrastructure set up around the galaxy means we can build Dyson spheres everywhere and power a huge (distributed) computational system.

13 John Mansfield October 17, 2012 at 10:04 am

The little probes could do all this easily, you say? When should we expect the first megawatt or gigaflop to rise from the dust of the moon or Mars?

14 Rahul October 17, 2012 at 1:00 pm

…..or even in the Arizona desert. Made by a autonomous printer of course. I won’t even insist that it be a tiny printer.

15 Steve M October 17, 2012 at 7:09 pm

How would it slow down when it got there?

16 Finch October 18, 2012 at 9:19 am

I’m not sure about the scale, but there are technologies that would work well for braking even though they might not be so useful for propulsion, like a magnetic sail.

17 careless October 18, 2012 at 11:16 am

More like 500 decades

18 Edward Burke October 18, 2012 at 8:52 pm

Thank you, careless, and apologies for my somnography, my math’s lousy even early on good days. (Meanwhile, I can hardly wait for the Planck data to come through in the next few months that will tell us whether dark flow is an actual phenomenon or a statistical aberration, although by the time we reach the Norma Cluster/Great Attractor/Shapley Supercluster region[s], we’ll all be approximately as far gone as the anomalocaridids sleeping comfortably in the Burgess Shale. Still, with the addition of water and a few good shakes, it’s hard to predict whether someone plans to reconstitute us . . . .)

19 rationalist October 19, 2012 at 2:43 am

My calculation, assuming a speed of 57400 km/hr gives 82000 years, or 8000 decades, so even you are an order of magnitude too optimistic.

20 Shaun October 17, 2012 at 12:15 am

The Rylan Star League was not able to fully recover and Xur eventually overwhelmed them in 1986

21 careless October 18, 2012 at 11:21 am

It’ll be a slaughter!

22 prior_approval October 17, 2012 at 12:26 am

Considering that Alpha Centauri is about 25 trillion miles away, and that the Voyagers are travelling roughly at a speed of 300 million or so miles a year, you might just want to check your math in terms of ‘decades’ being an appropriate measuring unit. ‘Centuries’ are also a bit short – without using any interstellar navigation corrections (see below – I’m not joking), Voyager would take about 83,333 years to arrive.

http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/interstellar.html (And one must note, at some point, NASA should just give up using ‘miles’ for anything. Attempting to use the archaic American system of measures has already cost them at least one probe, and no other spacefaring nation bothers.)

When using larger time scales, one notices the universe shifting – Voyager 1 is heading to Gliese 445, because in comparison to the slow moving probe, that star is streaking towards Sol (or the other way round, of course – it is all relative, not that relativity is playing much of a role in this essentially Newtonian game).

‘While the Voyager probe flies through space slowly closing on Gliese 445, the star is rapidly approaching the Sun. At the time the probe passes Gliese 445, the star will be about 1.059 parsecs (3.45 light-years) from the Sun,[2] but with less than half the brightness necessary to be seen with the naked eye.’


Things will be changing quite a bit in the local stellar neighborhood over the next 50,000 years or so –

‘Ross 248, currently at a distance of 10.3 light-years, has a radial velocity of −81 km/s. In about 31,000 years it may be the closest star to the Sun for several millennia, with a minimum distance of 0.927 parsecs (3.02 light-years) in 36,000 years.[26] Gliese 445, currently at a distance of 17.6 light-years, has a radial velocity of −119 km/s. In about 40,000 years it will be the closest star for a period of several thousand years.’


I still have the GPO publications of the Voyager missions – glorious images, printed by a government that was capable of conceiving and achieving such grand ventures in deep space. Well, at least some nations still have manned space flight capability, so it terms of one giant step for mankind, we are still making progress. Exclusively using the metric system, it should be noted.

23 mw October 17, 2012 at 1:09 am

This is awesome.

24 ibaien October 17, 2012 at 1:21 am

sooo…’living in a simulation where # of sentient species parameter was set to = 1′ or ‘xenophobic species-destroying robots in deep space, waiting to be awoken by primitive space probes’ ?

the american people demand answers!

25 Andrew October 17, 2012 at 2:41 am

Surely in any model worth its salt, the number of sentient species would be endogenous. Lucas critique anyone?

26 8 October 17, 2012 at 3:26 am
27 Anonymous Coward October 17, 2012 at 7:59 am

“Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us.”

— Calvin

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