Planet Found in the Alpha Centauri System – Could Pandora Be Discovered Soon?

Artist's illustration of the Alpha Centauri System. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/Nick Risinger (

Reminiscent of the movie AVATAR, a planet has been discovered in the nearest star system to our Sun, Alpha Centauri. This is a trinary system consisting of three stars: Alpha Centauri A, B, and C. Alpha Centauri A is the same type of star as our Sun but slightly larger while its companion, Alpha Centauri B is slightly smaller and cooler. Alpha Centauri C is a red dwarf star also known as Proxima Centauri and is the closest star to our solar system at a distance of 4.22 lightyears. Alpha Centauri A and B orbit each other at a distance of about 23 AU (Astronomical Unit: 93 million miles/150 million kilometers) or about the distance between the Sun and Uranus.

This newly discovered planet is no Polyphemus, the gas giant in the movie that the moon Pandora orbited. The planetary system was in orbit around the star Alpha Centauri A. This planet (designated Alpha Centauri B b) is in orbit about Alpha Centauri B and has an orbital period or year of 3.236 days. It’s mass (minimum mass) is 1.13 times that of Earth and it orbits its star at a distance of about six million kilometers, 3.6 million miles.

The simple facts about this planet belies the huge effort that was put forth to push the envelope of the technology and analysis techniques to find the planet.  This information was gleaned out of data collected from over of four years of observations using the HARPS spectrograph at the ESO LaSilla Observatory (See Finding Exoplanets – Part 2: It’s All About the Mass for more information on the HARPS instrument.) The team of astronomers, lead by Xavier Dumusque (Geneva Observatory, Switzerland and Centro de Astrofisica da Universidade do Porto, Portugal), lead author of the paper were able to improve on the sensitivity of the HARPS instrument by taking into account:

  • The radial motion of the Alpha Centauri star system relative to Earth
  • The stellar oscillation modes for Alpha Centauri B, akin to seismic vibrations
  • The granulation of the star’s surface (the convective zones of rising hot plasma and sinking cooler plasma on the surface, which contribute noise to the measured radial-velocity of the star)

    Image of the granulation of the Sun's surface. Image courtesy of ESA

  • The rotational contribution of the star (as the star rotates, the side moving toward us will be blue shifted while the side rotating away from us will be red shifted)
  • Spots on the surface that are brighter or darker than the mean
  • Magnetic cycle activity
  • Light from Alpha Centauri A contaminating the spectrum of the B star
  • Instrument noise.

After extensive data reduction and analysis, the team determined that the star was wobbling at a velocity of 51 cm/sec (20 inches/sec) due to the planet’s motion. This is about 1.8 km/hr or 1.1 mile per hour!

Although the planet discovered is too close to its parent star to be habitable, at least with life as we know it, the analysis techniques developed to pull the presence of the planet out of the noise can be used to identify planets with a minimum mass of 4 times Earth’s mass in the habitable zone of a star. This opens up a new category of planets that can be searched for.  Note that this is the first planet found in the Alpha Centauri, it may not be the last. It may only be a matter of time before a planet (or moon) like Pandora from AVATAR is found in a star system in the Milky Way.

Till next time,

RC Davison

Planet Found in Nearest Star System to Earth:

On Japan and Other Thoughts

I am still trying to comprehend the magnitude of the disaster that has afflicted Japan on the 11thof March. My thoughts are with all of those that are trying to pick up the pieces of their lives and put them all back together again. It is at these times that all the trappings of modern society are worthless. One’s main concern is for family, friends, food and shelter.

     In an effort to help support the relief effort in Japan, I will donate all proceeds from sales of Orbital Maneuvers from now (March 26, 2011) until the summer solstice on June 21st .  The more books sold, the more I’ll be able to contribute.

I’m going to rant here. Be forewarned!

When I watched the images coming out of Japan after the disaster, I could not shake the feeling that we should be more prepared. We, us, everyone on this planet. World wide for 2011 we will spend over two trillion dollars on defense. Defense of our sovereign lands from those who wish to attack us.

We are missing the big picture here. What we can do to each other pales in comparison to what Mother Nature can throw at us. Look at what just happened in Japan. What about hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans and the Gulf coast. The earthquake and tsunami that hit Indonesia in 2004 and the earthquake in China in 2008. The list goes on. But, these are small events compared to some of the major events that have occurred in the past, from super-volcanoes erupting to asteroid impacts.

Maybe we should start thinking more along the line of joining forces. After all, it is 2011, the 21st century. Should we not be civilized by this point? We’ve had over 10,000 years of development and yet we are constantly focused on beating each other into submission. Be it for religious, political, ideological or territorial reasons.

I know I’m being too idealistic here, but we should stop pointing missiles and guns at each other and divert those funds to developing the technology that will allow us to survive these inevitable natural disasters. We’ve got a handle on how to build earthquake resistant buildings, but they are not earthquake-proof. More importantly, our infrastructure is very vulnerable to many types of natural disasters.

We know this stuff happens. It has happened in the past and will again in the future. Two trillion dollars will go a long way to developing technology to study the planet we live on and understand what triggers these events. If we can’t stop them, at least we should be able to predict them reliably, and design our homes, businesses, cities and nations to withstand their onslaught.

Orbital Maneuvers is about multiple asteroid impacts on the United States. This is not beyond the realm of probability. It was scary researching this for the book, because it does not take a very big object to create global devastation. And, if not global, local devastation, which still can have global consequences. A small asteroid hitting the ocean is going to create tsunamis that could make the one that just hit Japan look like ripples on a pond.

So, we have a choice. We can keep preying on each other, burning money and resources to build offensive and defensive systems, and ignore the fact that there is a force out there more powerful than anything we have in our arsenals, or we can realize that this is the only place we have to live, and if we are going to survive, we have to join forces in building a common defense for everyone.

All the weapons, gadgets, toys and technology won’t mean a thing if Mother Nature reaches out and slaps you down. Just ask the people in Japan…

Till next time,

RC Davison

UFOs – Real or Imaginary?

UFOs seem to be popping up in the news.  China is having a rash of sightings compromising certain airports in their country, and the National Press Club had a news conference on September 27, 2010 with retired Air Force personnel recounting their experiences.

So, UFOs, real or imaginary?

To paraphrase Carl Sagan, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, we have to ask, where’s the evidence?  Surely, UFOs are extraordinary objects, but we don’t seem to have the hard physical evidence.  Some might argue that there is physical evidence, but it is locked up on some high security military base, or buried in a nondescript government warehouse.  So, the general public doesn’t have access to that.  What we do have is a small percentage of sightings that can not be explained as the planet Venus, weather balloons, airplanes, etc.  Within this group of unexplained cases we find that a percentage of those sightings were made by people with professional backgrounds—pilots, police officers, military personnel, and astronauts— that lend credibility to their reports.  They knew enough and had enough experience to report an incident that could not be dismissed with one of the typical explanations.

I think we are too short-sighted and conceited to admit that there is other intelligent life in our galaxy/universe.  The argument is often put forth that the physics prevents interstellar travel, so it is impossible that these sightings are extraterrestrial in origin.  To think that we know everything there is to know about the physics of the cosmos is as faulty today as it was in the late 1800s when scientists thought there was nothing more to learn.  They had discovered electricity, magnetism, gravity…What else was there to discover?  It was around the turn of the century that X-rays were discovered, and a few years later Einstein came up with his theories about the photoelectric effect and relativity, and it goes on and on.  There is a lot out there we haven’t a clue about yet!

For me, it’s not hard to see that we don’t know everything about everything.  And, with over 300 billion stars in this galaxy, which is over 10 billion years old, and with an unimaginable number of planets orbiting those stars, odds are that there are many extraterrestrial civilizations out there.  Personally, I think that they’ve been here and checked us out more than once.

Why?  Who knows?  Maybe one day we will get to ask them in person.

I’ve been working on a new novel for the last year or so that involves a unique UFO encounter.  This all adds incentive to finish it up sooner!

Till next time,

RC Davison

Do They Know We’re Here?

A week or so ago SETIcon went on in Santa Clara, California.  This is a convention led by the SETI Institute, which is devoted to investigating the possibility of life elsewhere in the cosmos.  There was some buzz about whether or not we should try to broadcast messages advertising that we are here, and interested in communicating.  There was a range of responses from ‘no, we shouldn’t advertise our presence because an alien species might come and do us harm’ (a point of view expressed by Dr. Stephen Hawking) to ‘well it’s too late, since we’ve been broadcasting our presence from the first radio messages that were transmitted in the late 1890’s, early 1900’s’.  This point was echoed by Dr. Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute.

I happen to agree with Dr. Shostak.  We’ve been broadcasting radio signals for over 100 years, and they’ve only become richer with more information as time has passed.  The fears that an alien culture would come here and use us as a food source ignores the reality that we have bacterial, parasitical and viral components that they would probably have no immune defense for.

Just think about what we go through to travel around the world today, in 2010.  We have to be immunized against many of the diseases that are common in certain parts of the world, and/or take other precautions to minimize our chances of exposure to debilitating or even deadly diseases.  In most places you are cautioned about drinking the local water.  We all evolved on this planet – humans, plants, animals, bacteria, viruses, parasites and what ever I’ve forgotten.  What is ET going to do when they have us for dinner?

Of course, one could argue that they may have the technology to inoculate themselves from our little bugs, but why come all this way to have to do that when you can eat the food you’ve evolved eating on your home planet?

Another fear is that they will strip mine our planet.  From what we’ve already learned from Kepler in its first year of service looking for extrasolar planets, (see Blog 24. July 2010) I’ve got a feeling that most of the over 300 billion stars in the Milky Way have some sort of planetary/debris structure orbiting them.  These will be vast reservoirs of minerals, elements and compounds much closer to their home planet.  They won’t need to travel all the way to Earth to pick them up.

So, if they know we are here, and if they have the technology to travel across the cosmos to visit us, we really don’t have much to say about it.  To try to guess whether their intentions are peaceful or not, is a fruitless exercise.  We only have our own history of aggressive expansion and violent behavior as an example of what an advanced society can do.  We shouldn’t judge extra-planetary civilizations based on our violent past, and the way Hollywood has portrayed extraterrestrials.

One last thought.  Even if we didn’t invent radio transmissions when we did, an advanced civilization would have the technology to know that our planet exists.  And, if they are within about 200 lightyears of us, they would have seen the composition of our atmosphere change (or begin to change) over the last 2 centuries.  This would surely be a flag that something was interesting was going on here!

What do you think?

As always, comments are greatly appreciated.

Till next time,

RC Davison

Science Fiction Podcasts

If you’ve checked out the site, and the blog, you’ll know my passion for science.  So, for me, writing science fiction is a natural extension of that passion.  As far as I’m concerned science and science fiction go hand-in-hand.  And, I firmly believe they drive each other in a convoluted closed loop.

The more that science advances, the larger the base of material a writer has to build upon.  Applying their imagination, and pushing the boundaries of what we can dream of. In turn, that stimulates the minds of the readers, (especially the young ones) laying the ground work they will use when they contribute to society by conducting research and pushing the boundaries of what is possible.  The cycle continues.

Where am I going with this? Well, I just wanted to bring to your attention a few podcast sites that I’ve been following for a while: The Drabblecast, Escape Pod, and PodCastle.

Drabblecast and Escape Pod are Sci-Fi sites, while Podcastle is mainly a Fantasy site, but sometimes that line is not too clear.  The people behind these sites typically put up an audio version of a short story, sometimes  with multiple voice actors, sound effects and music.  They typically run about 30 minutes, but occasionally may run longer. Some of these stories are Hugo Award winners/nominees, and some of the authors are very well know in the publishing world.  You might be amazed at some of the work that comes from people who are new to the industry.

I have no affiliation with these sites, so there is nothing in it for me to promote them other than the pleasure of knowing that I’ve turned someone else on to some great story telling. The bottom line is that there are some really great Sci-Fi short stories  being written and nicely produced.  Of course, not every story will be meet your expectations, but that’s life.  I’ve found that even if I didn’t care for the story, the narration or production makes for an entertaining listen.

Check them out if you get a chance.  I think you’ll be glad you did.  There are extensive archives on each site, so you’ll have a lot to listen to.  (The links to these sites are also on the side of the page under Links.)

Till next time,

RC Davison