An exoplanet has recently been discovered orbiting one of the stars in the Alpha Centauri binary star-system. AC is the Sun’s closest stellar neighbour, at a distance of merely 4.3 light years; in astronomical terms almost lying within arm’s reach.
The first exoplanet was discovered only some two decades ago; not for lack of ambition or trying beforehand, but merely due to the fact that our technology finally enabled us to do so at around such a time.
The list has since ballooned to well over 500 exoplanets – that is, from 9 (or rather 8) known planets in the universe to over 500 in two decades. Considering that the list remained static at just 6 for many thousands of years (with Uranus, Neptune and Pluto being added in 1781, 1846 and 1930, respectively) this rate of expansion is very great indeed.
In addition to the discoveries of exoplanets around other stellar neighbours, most notably Epsilon Eridani and Gliese 581, it certainly seems that exoplanets are far more common than first thought, and even more common than many science-fiction writers dared to dream.
Even within a radius of 50 light-years, at least 30 exoplanetary host-stars have already been recorded. By this reckoning, one can only assume that even our metaphorical back-garden is teeming with other worlds.
In light of the fact that our galaxy is 100,000 light-years in diameter, and assuming that the nature of such proliferous planetary formation is not exclusive to our local region of space — but rather pervading the entirety of the Milky Way — then the number of potential planets that yet wait to be discovered number in the billions.
This, of course, has many implications for the prospects of the expansion of human civilisation, galactic exploration and, most interesting of all, the variables of the Drake Equation (click to read more).
I’m sure that I’ll return to this matter in due course to ramble incessantly about such things, but today I’ll digress on what first preoccupied my mind when I heard the news: what this discovery means for science fiction.
A great many sci-fi works in all media refer to the exploration and colonisation of (formerly) hypothetical exoplanets orbiting nearby stars, heralding from sci-fi’s Golden Age and the very recent past: Epsilon Eridani being the suspected location of the planet Vulcan in Star Trek, the host-star to Comporellon in Asimov’s Foundation’s Edge, and the planet Reach; UNSC’s ‘fortress among the stars’ in the Halo games series. Alpha Centauri, meanwhile, is even the host-star to the garden-world Pandora in James Cameron’s Avatar (for maximum Geek Points, I would like to point out that Pandora was in fact a moon orbiting the fictional Jovian planet Polyphemus in the AC system).
These are but a few examples of the dozens, if not hundreds, of examples to be found in the depths of the genre’s past; each of them, however, has up until very recently been a subject of contention. Assertions of any real planets lying so close to home was seen by some to be nothing more than wishful-thinking, lazy plotting, or the result of Ex Deus Machina.
These neighbouring worlds being ripe for the taking was simply too convenient for many; tantamount to easily breaking the speed of light (traversing the universe without impedance with Quantum Drives and Hyperspace Engines), describing space-battles alive with the sound of laser-blasts and the whine of Starfighters, and having a main character with a name like Zog. Lazy sci-fi.
These recent discoveries, however, will almost certainly inspire a new generation of works to be written with great zeal. Sci-fi heroes will most likely soon be striding into our neighbouring star-systems with a far greater degree of confidence, immune to the sneering derision of would-be doomsayers and eternal pessimists.
The gap in our civilisation’s projected future timeline has always lain squarely upon the border between hard sci-fi and fantasy. That gap in our development between being the Lords of Sol and operating a Galactic Empire has, for the most part, been rendered fuzzy and unstable in even the greatest futurist minds: the overwhelming task of traversing the monstrous gulfs between the Sun and any prospective Sister Earth boggled even the most ambitious notions of mega-engineering.
That line, however, has just shifted in a very comforting direction; the nature of our situation has solidified into one that many have dreamed of, and many more didn’t dare hope for. Whilst the road ahead looks long and arduous, it’s at least a small comfort to know that humanity is not so trapped within this star-system, after all, and that interstellar travel is not quite so fanciful as was at once thought.
The universe just got a little bit smaller.
[ To read more on the matter of our newest addition to the planetary tree, follow the following link to an article from Scientific American: Click Here ]