Friday, August 26, 2016

Earth-Like Planet Orbits Nearby Star

The recent discovery of an Earth-like planet orbiting Proxima Centauri confirms the speculation, in my free online novel 2052 - The Hawking Plan, that the three-star Alpha Centauri system is a likely target for preserving human life and civilization in the event a natural or man-made disaster wipes out life on Earth.

From CNN (24 August 2016):
... researchers have confirmed the existence of a rocky planet named Proxima b orbiting Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our sun, according to a new study. It is the closest exoplanet to us in the universe.

Given the fact that Proxima b is within the habitable zone of its star, meaning liquid water could exist on the surface, it may also be the closest possible home for life outside of our solar system, the researchers said.

Because of its location, the researchers hope it provides an opportunity for possible "robotic exploration in the coming centuries."

"The good news is that it is so close," study author Ansgar Reiners said. "It is not only nice for having it in our neighborhood, but it's a dream come true for astronomers if we think about follow-up observation.
My novel, 2052 - The Hawking Plan, as the title indicates, is set in the year 2052. I wrote it primarily as a vehicle to convey my predictions of "life, liberty, and technology in future decades." It was published in 2008. Here are the applicable excerpts:
“Stephen Hawking,” said Stephanie Goldenrod in a reverent tone, "The famous theoretical physicist and cosmologist who happens to be my great-grandfather, said, some fifty years ago, the human race will not survive on Earth for a thousand years. He wanted us to spread out, very fast, to Earth-like planets beyond our Solar System! He embraced human space travel!” As she said “Human space travel,” a video of Stephen Hawking floating in zero gravity appeared on the display wall.

She gazed at the video and smiled broadly. “Despite his physical limitations, my great-grandfather accepted an opportunity, in 2007, to fly in a special airplane that went to high altitudes and plunged to Earth to allow him to experience zero gravity in person! Unfortunately, by the time he passed away, human space travel had all but ceased, in favor of space probes ‘manned’ by intelligent robotic agents.

“He warned a natural disaster or human-made accident could wipe life out on a single planet."

I don't think the human race will survive the next thousand years.
Unless we spread into space.
There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet.
But I'm an optimist.
We will reach out to the stars.
[Stephen Hawking, Physicist and Cosmologist, 2001]

Animated charts appeared on the display wall behind her. “My Hawking Plan calls for nothing less than a massive effort to spread human civilization and genes far and wide throughout space. We’re talking about thousands of spaceships launched over a period of hundreds of years, starting by 2062, no more than ten to twenty years from today.”

As she spoke, a high-resolution satellite image of our TABB building in Orlando appeared on the display wall. Slowly the view zoomed out and all of the greater Orlando area filled the display screen. The view expanded to Florida and eastern North America, and then the entire Earth. A label appeared:

Mother Earth – Our Big Blue-Green Marble.

The image zoomed out further and faster to contain Venus and Mars, and then our Sun and Solar System. A label appeared:

Our Solar System – Our Planet Neighborhood.

The zoom-out ceased when our galaxy filled the screen. A label appeared: Our Galaxy – The Milky Way. The view shifted a few degrees and slowly started to zoom in on what, at first, seemed to be a single star. A label appeared:

Alpha Centauri – Our Nearest Neighbor Solar System. (Only Four and a Third Light Years Away).

As it zoomed in further Alpha Centauri morphed into two stars, one quite bright and the other a duller, reddish neighbor. Further zooming split the bright star in two, one whitish-yellow, and the other yellowish orange. Those two large stars, together with the tiny reddish one, made for a dramatic triple star-system.

The zoom-in slowed a bit and more detailed labels appeared. According to the text, the largest star was:

Centauri A – A Bit Larger and Brighter than Earth’s Sun.

It was in a binary partnership with:

Centauri B – A Bit Smaller and Duller than Earth’s Sun.

The smallest star was:

Proxima Centauri – A Red Dwarf.

The view panned between the three stars and then slowly zoomed in on Centauri A, showing a number of planets.

The zoom descended towards the fourth planet out from Centauri A – a “big blue-brown marble.” A label proclaimed:

Planet Hawking – Fourth Planet Out from Centauri A. (First Target for Extra-Solar Colonization).

A peninsula, similar to Florida, jutted out into the ocean. The zooming concluded with a satellite-like view of an area near the coastline. Inland were the foothills and a chain of lakes. A river flowed from the largest lake towards the ocean. The land was bare – no grass or trees – mostly brown, with some large areas of gray and black. The view morphed into a “live” video image.

As it panned towards the ground, a large hangar-like structure came into view. It was parked on a promontory between the river bank and the ocean beach. The hangar was surrounded by a park-like area of grass, bushes, and trees. Further zoom-in revealed the words:

TABB, Hawking 0001 (First Extra Solar System Human Colony, circa 2100).

The Hawking Plan logo, a stylized DNA molecule, was visible on the side of the hangar. Behind it could be seen a bright-yellow Sun, labeled: Centauri A. In the distance, lower in the sky and to the left, a second and duller-yellow-orange Sun, quite a bit smaller, was labeled: Centauri B. Far to the right and low in the sky a sharp-eyed observer could see a dull red Sun labeled: Proxima Centauri.

“The first step,” Stephanie continued, “Will be to use our authorized funding for internal studies augmented by ongoing TABB-funded university research. We need to define the parameters of human travel over awesome distances and extended times to reach well outside our Solar System. We must use our imaginations to their utmost limits to figure the best alternatives for spreading human genetics and civilization. Do we send living people, perhaps in suspended animation? Or, will it be frozen embryos to be thawed, gestated in artificial wombs, and raised and properly socialized by robot nannies? What about plants and animals? Not since Noah’s Ark has there been a task as far-reaching as our Hawking Plan.”
The novel outlines and considers three general concepts for exporting human life and civilization to an Earth-like planet. They are:

Noah’s Ark – live humans and a selection of other animals and plants in suspended animation.

Embryonic – frozen human embryos and a selection of other animals and plants. The embryos to be thawed and brought to term in artificial wombs and socialized by “nanny robots”.

Panspermia* – frozen or salted prokaryotic (bacteria) and eukaryotic (plants, animals) cells to be thawed and evolved to advanced complexity over several thousand years in robot run genetic engineering laboratories, using modern plant, animal, and human genome data as a starting point.

In the novel, the first two options are discarded due to ethical overtones of sending humans on one-way journeys to space knowing that many would likely perish.

The third, Panspermia (or, more properly, Directed Panspermia**), has no such ethical overtones. In addition, the target planet, while "Earth-like", would most likely be somewhat different from Earth. If it was larger or smaller than Earth, the attraction of gravity would be greater or lesser. The solar radiation spectrum at the surface of the planet would vary, depending upon the size and age of their Sun and other factors. There could be more ultraviolet, or less, and more infrared, or less. The atmosphere would likely differ somewhat in percentages of nitrogen, oxygen, and other gases, etc. Thus, the "Panspermia" plan starts with basic cells and intends to tailor the plant, animal, and human genomes during a 6,000 to 10,000 year period of "rapid assisted evolution", to better match actual conditions.

On the other hand, in the novel, some fiscally conservative opponents of the Hawking Plan note that the idea of planting bacteria, plant, and animal cells and using rapid assisted evolution to adapt them to a new home planet, contains echoes of the supposedly discredited theory of "Intelligent Design" to account for the origin of  life on Earth. Uh oh! Read all about it here: 2052 - The Hawking Plan

Ira Glickstein

[From Wikipedia]

*Panspermia (from Greek πᾶν (pan), meaning "all", and σπέρμα (sperma), meaning "seed") is the hypothesis that life exists throughout the Universe, distributed by meteoroids, asteroids, comets,[1] planetoids,[2] and, also, by spacecraft in the form of unintended contamination by microorganisms.[3][4]

Panspermia is a hypothesis proposing that microscopic life forms that can survive the effects of space, such as extremophiles, become trapped in debris that is ejected into space after collisions between planets and small Solar System bodies that harbor life. Some organisms may travel dormant for an extended amount of time before colliding randomly with other planets or intermingling with protoplanetary disks. If met with ideal conditions on a new planet's surfaces, the organisms become active and the process of evolution begins. Panspermia is not meant to address how life began, just the method that may cause its distribution in the Universe.[5][6][7]

The first known mention of the term was in the writings of the 5th century BC Greek philosopher Anaxagoras.[12] Panspermia began to assume a more scientific form through the proposals of Jöns Jacob Berzelius (1834),[13] Hermann E. Richter (1865),[14] Kelvin (1871),[15] Hermann von Helmholtz (1879)[16][17] and finally reaching the level of a detailed hypothesis through the efforts of the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius (1903).[18]
Fred Hoyle (1915–2001) and Chandra Wickramasinghe (born 1939) were influential proponents of panspermia.[19][20] In 1974 they proposed the hypothesis that some dust in interstellar space was largely organic (containing carbon), which Wickramasinghe later proved to be correct.[21][22][23] Hoyle and Wickramasinghe further contended that life forms continue to enter the Earth's atmosphere, and may be responsible for epidemic outbreaks, new diseases, and the genetic novelty necessary for macroevolution.[24]

In an Origins Symposium presentation on April 7, 2009, physicist Stephen Hawking stated his opinion about what humans may find when venturing into space, such as the possibility of alien life through the theory of panspermia: "Life could spread from planet to planet or from stellar system to stellar system, carried on meteors."[25]

** Directed panspermia concerns the deliberate transport of microorganisms in space to be used as introduced species on lifeless planets. Directed panspermia may have been sent to Earth to start life here, or may be sent from Earth to seed exoplanets with life.
Historically, Shklovskii and Sagan (1966) and Crick and Orgel (1973) hypothesized that life on Earth may have been seeded deliberately by other civilizations. Conversely, Mautner and Matloff (1979) and Mautner (1995, 1997) proposed that we ourselves should seed new planetary systems,
protoplanetary discs or star-forming clouds with microorganisms, to secure and expand our organic gene/protein life-form. To avoid interference with local life, the targets may be young planetary systems where local life is unlikely. Directed panspermia can be motivated by biotic ethics that value the basic patterns of organic gene/protein life with its unique complexity and unity, and its drive for self-propagation.
Belonging to life then implies panbiotic ethics with a purpose to propagate and expand life in space. Directed panspermia for this purpose is becoming possible due to developments in
solar sails, precise astrometry, the discovery of extrasolar planets, extremophiles and microbial genetic engineering. Cosmological projections suggests that life in space can then have an immense future.[1][2]

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