What might 2 years bring? The gringa’s 6th grandchild chattering my ears off? The gringa hitting the half century mark? A new waistline? Fortunately, according to Harvard researcher, much more exciting stuff than that should be happening in just 2 years. Think Proxima b. That’s an exoplanet about the same size as our own. It is the nearest planet to our solar system that has the potential to be inhabited. Proxima b is Earth twin candidate number one in what scientists are calling the Pale Red Dot campaign.
The organization heading up this campaign has a singular purpose: To explore a planet in the Proxima Centauri system. It’s only 4 light years away. How long would it take to travel that far? With current technology, we can already see a 4 light year travel time in action. Space probes Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were launched in 1977. They are just now exiting our own solar system after about 40 years of travel. Voyager 1 is expected to drift near a star in the Camelopardalis constellation that is 1.6 light years away. Expected arrival time, oh, about 40,000 years.
So if it would take about a million years to even get a probe to Proxima b, why the heck do scientists even care? Well, because we don’t need a probe in order to find out about its atmosphere and whether it could support life as we know it. Clever astrophysicists at Harvard claim that all we need to do is sample the light from the star system. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is scheduled by NASA to launch in only 2 years and it is equipped to do the job.
The gringa is amazed at all the information that could be contained in a light sample. We could find out if the landscape is bare rock. We could learn certain details about the atmospheric gases. We might even be able to determine if there is an ocean on Proxima b. How can they do this? Just what kind of stuff does infrared light tell us?
- When a rocky planet is warmed by starlight, it absorbs the sunlight and re-emits it as infrared light. Rocky planets have a certain infrared signature.
- Infrared light shows up as different colors that indicate different temperatures.
- Certain color/temperature signatures would be a clue as to an atmosphere that is low-lying and able to redistribute heat during a night cycle.
- The absence of specific infrared signatures means Proxima b is just a plain, old rock.
And if the Pale Red Dot campaign ends up terribly disappointed with the performance of NASA’s JWST telescope, in about 20-30 years the Breakthrough Starshot project, created by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner & physicist Stephan Hawking, may be able to provide the answers they seek about Proxima b. Breakthrough Starshot plans to launch a laser-propelled nano spacecraft toward the Proxima Centauri star system then. It will provide more than infrared signature details. This craft is equipped with cameras and filters to take an array of images. The gringa is hoping for answers in a couple of years but will be just as excited if the answers come through when I’m tottering about half-senile in 30 more years or so.
Image Credit: technofres.com