Alpha Centauri as seen by the Cassini orbiter above the limb of Saturn.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

Alpha Centauri and the New Astronomy


For much longer than the nine years Centauri Dreams has been in existence, I’ve been waiting for the announcement of a planetary discovery around Centauri B. And I’m delighted to turn the first announcement on this site over to Lee Billings, one of the most gifted science writers of our time (and author of a highly regarded piece on the Centauri stars called The Long Shot). Lee puts the find into the broader context of exoplanet research as we turn our gaze to the nearest stars, those that would be the first targets of any future interstellar probes. On Thursday I’ll follow up with specifics, digging into the discovery paper with more on the planet itself and the reasons why Centauri B was a better target than nearby Centauri A. I’ll also be offering my own take on the significance of the find, which I think is considerable.

by Lee Billings

For much of the past century, astronomy has been consumed by a quest to gaze ever deeper out in space and time, in pursuit of the universe’s fundamental origins and ultimate fate. This Old Astronomy has given us a cosmological creation story, one which tells us we live in but one of innumerable galaxies, each populated with hundreds of billions of stars, all in an expanding, accelerating universe that began 13.7 billion years ago and that may endure eternally. It’s an epic, compelling tale, yet something has been missing: us. Lost somewhere in between the universe’s dawn and destiny, passed over and compressed beyond recognition, is the remarkable fact that 4.5 billion years ago our Sun and its worlds were birthed from stardust, and starlight began incubating the planetary ball of rock and iron we call Earth.

Somehow, life emerged and evolved here, eventually producing human beings, creatures with the intellectual capacity to wonder where they came from and the technological capability to determine where they will go. Uniquely among the worlds in our solar system, the Earth has given birth to life that may before the Sun goes dim reach out to touch the stars. Perhaps, on other worlds circling other suns, other curious minds gaze at their night skies and wonder as we do whether they are alone. In this coming century, a New Astronomy is rising, one that focuses not on the edge of space and the beginning of time but on the nearest stars and the uncharted worlds they likely hold. It will be this New Astronomy, rather than the Old, that will at last complete the quest to place our existence on Earth within a cosmic context.

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