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The Alpha Centauri of our imagination

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In this artist's rendering of Alpha Centauri, our Sun would appear as a tiny dot to the top right, it is off the frame in this image. (Image: ESO/L. CalÇada/Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org))

Recently, the HARPS (High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher) project found an Earth-sized planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B. The presence of one planet is prima facie evidence that more planets are possible and will certainly stimulate efforts to find them. Also stimulated will be the fertile imaginations of our science fiction writers. In this article, we examine some of the more interesting sci-fi scenarios already developed that use Alpha Centauri as a base.

In Far Centaurus, a 1944 short story by A.E. van Vogt, an expedition arrives at Alpha Centauri after hibernating in their slow space ship for centuries. They are greeted there by a long established, advanced civilization of humans who had also travelled to the planet from Earth, using a new technology that allowed them to go faster than the speed of light. The new arrivals suffer from future shock, as they are primitive beings relative to their highly-evolved hosts. A different twist on the same theme is provided by Larry Niven, in his story, Like Banquo's Ghost. A group of journalists, scientists, and politicians gather to hear a transmission back from a space probe sent to explore the fictional planet Centaura. Unbeknownst to them, the group includes an alien from that planet, sent back as an ambassador at superluminal speed. 

Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, is a powerful multiple award-winning novel, which I highly recommend, about faith, religion, misunderstanding and unintended consequences. In response to mysterious radio signals, a Jesuit mission is sent to the planet Rakhat in the Centauri system, an expedition which ends in tragedy for all involved. The title is a reference to the scriptural passage wherein Jesus preaches that not even a sparrow falls to Earth without the Father's knowledge. The protagonist tries to reconcile the awful consequences of the mission with God's presumed omniscience.

Three Body, Chinese writer Liu Cixin, details the evolution of an extremophilic life form on a planet with an erratic orbit around each of Centauri's three suns. The strange, scientifically implausible orbit leads to highly variable environmental conditions. Hoping to escape to a more benign setting for their civilization, the sentient residents of the planet plan an invasion of the nearest solar system—ours.

Clans of the Alphane Moon is a typical Philip K. Dick mind-boggler that seems to be based, in part, on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.Alpha III M2 is a colony on a moon orbiting an Alpha Centauri planet, whose inhabitants are descended from patients in a satellite-based mental institution. The have formed a functional, if weird, hierarchical society. Paranoids, or Pares, form the political class. Manses, suffering from mania, are the soldiers. Shizophrenics, or Skitzes, are the poets and visionaries. Ob-Coms, suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder, are the clerks and functionaries, et cetera. The plot revolves around a deceptive scheme by Earth's government to regain control of its wayward colony. 

Voyage to Yesteryear, by James Hogan, begins in the early 21st century as a robotic probe is about to be launched in search of habitable exoplanets. However, before it is launched, a conflict breaks out on Earth that is potentially apocalyptic. The probe is hastily reconfigured to carry artificial wombs implanted with human embryos and nurturing robots to raise the babies to adulthood. The conflict on Earth is eventually resolved, leaving a residual authoritarian civilization with competing power blocs. Meanwhile, the colonists have safely landed on a Centaurian planet they name Chiron. The Chironians are able establish a kind of anarchical utopia, based on libertarian principles. The body of the novel recounts efforts of the Earth's nations to gain control over the Chironian outpost, efforts which are thwarted at every turn. After these failures, the Earth's powers turn once again on each other with an all-out war. The novel ends with an expedition from Chiron on its way to repopulate the decimated Earth. 

The Centaurus constellation is the nearest to our solar system, a hop-skip-and a warp-drive jump away at 4.3 light years. Alpha Centauri has served as a convenient location for our authors to set up a fun-house mirror in which to catch distorted images of ourselves— altered reflections from afar that comment on our present circumstances.  The real Alpha Centauri is a strange enough place with two suns, A & B, orbiting each other, and a third star, Proxima Centauri, that is gravitationally associated with the first two. The newly discovered planet is so close to sun B as to be uninhabitable, a hellish place with a surface temperature of about 2000 °C.  While Curiosity beams down images from our planetary neighbor, Mars, our curiosity is engaged once again with our closest neighboring constellation.  Unfortunately, with current technology, it would take millennia to reach Alpha Centauri. 

If only we had a real warp drive...

To see the original version of this image, including the Sun, check out the European Southern Observatory (ESO) website.

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In this artist's rendering of Alpha Centauri, our Sun would appear as a tiny dot to the top right, it is off the frame in this image. (Image: ESO/L. CalÇada/Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org))
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