Artist’s conception of the surface of Proxima b. (ESO/M. Kornmesser)

Artist’s conception of the surface of Proxima b. (ESO/M. Kornmesser)

by Jason Batt

Exoplanet experts, interstellar proponents and space enthusiasts are celebrating the recent announcement of the discovery of Proxima b — an Earth sized planet orbiting within the habitable zone around our closest neighboring star, Proxima Centauri, just 4.2 light year away. Proxima b is “just what the author ordered”.

Guillem Anglada-Escude, is a Queen Mary University of London astronomer and lead the group that discovered Proxima b. Anglada-Escude is not shy about his love of science fiction and its influence on his own astronomical exploration. This recent discovery was no exception. In an interview with Nature magazine, Anglada-Escude recounted reading Stephen Baxter’s 2015 science fiction novel Proxima which described in amazingly accurate detail the planet that Anglada-Escude and his team had just discovered but not yet announced. “He didn’t know anything about it [when he wrote] … it was a bit astonishing.”

The author, Baxter, has explored the possibilities of reaching Proxima Centauri in both fiction and non-fiction. In 2012, Baxter with co-author Robert M. Freeland II examined, a proposal for a robotic probe to Proxima Centauri entitled, “A Fully Decelerated Probe to Alpha Centauri Using a Perturbed Project Daedalus Design” which was originally published in the 100 Year Starship 2012 Public Symposium Conference Proceedings. The paper considered “a long stay mission to explore the Alpha Centauri system with a fast unmanned probe.”

Expanding on this “long stay mission,” Baxter’s fictional work, Proxima, starts with reference to a fictional interstellar probe: “a one-shot uncrewed mission to Proxima Centauri intended to deliver a probe to study the habitable world the astronomers had found fifty years earlier orbiting that remote star” and  examines the world-changing events of such a probe. The once fictional world has been found in the real world by astronomers; it is a welcome target for interstellar experts to set their sights. The discovery of Proxima b provides a potentially much closer target than ever before—a target that might be explored by a probe similar to what Baxter proposed.

100 Year Starship (100YSS) is building a global community of experts and advocates to ensure the all the capabilities required for human travel beyond our solar system to another star are a reality within the next 100 years.  Why?  Because all the advances in knowledge, technology and human systems needed for the successful interstellar voyage are fundamental to our survival as a species on this planet. And we know that pursuing an extraordinary tomorrow creates a better world today.

100 Year Starship believes the connection between science fiction and scientific discovery is invaluable to enabling the interstellar journey. The annual 100YSS Canopus Awards for Excellence in Interstellar Writing honors this critical influence. As Anglada-Escude referenced in the Nature interview, science fiction is the practice of “What if?”  What if there were a habitable world around our nearest stellar neighbor?  Writers tackle these questions. In the capable hands of authors like Baxter, societies profit from this form of robust speculation.

To nominate or submit a work for the 2016 Canopus Award, visit canopus.100yss.org.

For more information on 100 Year Starship, visit 100yss.org.