Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

Planet Close

“The discovery that our nearest neighbor has rocky planets is the story of the decade. I’d bet $100 that there are other planets that are there as well.”
Yale astronomer Debra Fischer, on the recent discovery that there is a planet of roughly the same mass as Earth in the Alpha Centauri solar system, a mere 4.4 light years away. Now, sure, this is exciting—because where there is one small, rocky planet, there are often others and there is a habitable orbit zone around 65 million miles from Centauri B. (There are three stars in the Alpha Centauri system.) But, come on, not even the most devout reader of Space Dorks Illustrated could think that this is "The story of the decade." I mean, surely, the Mars Rover stuff is bigger, even for space-cadet weirdos, right? And of course, down here in normal society, no story can hold a candle to the sandwich that uses fried chicken for bread. (Kind of amazing that that was invented in this decade, isn't it? It's such a part of us now.) But this is a good opportunity to say the name "Alpha Centuari" a lot, which really is one of the cooler-sounding names in all of space anywhere and also so much like those Old Spice commercials. (Those commercials are like the third biggest story of the decade.)

9 Comments / Post A Comment

stuffisthings (#1,352)

I see you fixed the error I clicked through from Google Reader to point out. Carry on, good sir!

chewbaklava (#238,722)

excellent reporting, thanks for making science look lame whilst referencing things that happened years ago, great work! the tag line of the blog is still 'be less stupid' right?

Jared (#1,227)

4.4 light years, not 4.4 million light years. (Does that make it a bigger story? Yes, slightly.)

Dave Bry (#422)

Thank you, Jared, fixed. (Man, once I just start typing the word "light year," my brain goes to mush because I can't hold the concept in my head.) And, Chewbaklava, I am sorry if you took this post as an attempt to make science look lame. That is about as opposite from the way that I feel about science as could be. I use terms like "space dorks" and "space cadet wierdos" very affectionately. I certainly do think that this news is very exciting. And I like the fact that people like Debra Fischer find it so exciting, and do the important work that scientists do.

David (#192)

Steven Stogatz posts in the NY Times today a very useful essay on how to go about understanding just how far away from us the Alpha Centauri solar system is, relative to taking a short walk in Ithaca, NY.

Starting at the “Sun” on the “Sagan Planet Walk,” “the first four planets are really close together. It takes a few seconds, a few tens of steps, to walk from the Sun to Mercury and then on to Venus, Earth and Mars. By contrast, Jupiter is a full two-minute walk down the block … The whole walk, from the Sun to Pluto, is about three-quarters of a mile long and takes about 15 minutes.” To get to Alpha Centaur on this same scale, you’d have to walk 5,000 more miles, to the Imiloa Astronomy Center on the University of Hawaii’s Hilo campus.

So on the Sagan scale, Debra Fischer and those people at Yale are asking us to contemplate what might accompany some rocks that are the equivalent of being 5,000 miles of New York … or 4.4 million light years, plus another 65 million miles from Centauri B.

Amasa Amos (#9,654)

@David Like the man says in the story, “This is close enough you can almost spit there."

Dave Bry (#422)

I love that line. That'd be just like us, wouldn't it? We find a potentially inhabitable plannet nearby and what do we do? We spit on it. We're like llamas, us earthlings.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

You are completely missing the point. The fact that a world like this can be found at the star next door is not significant because we could "walk over and knock" (we can't), but because it raises the probability of the existence of "earth-like" planets by orders of magnitude, which in turn further boosts the idea that we cannot possibly be alone (or unique) in the universe. And, if you think that's of no interest to us just because we can't ever contact those other civilizations out there, you might as well be thinking that the fact that humanity will continue to exist after your death is of no interest to you.

Dave Bry (#422)

I'm not at all convinced that humanity will continue to exist after my death.

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