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Alpha Centauri, Here We Come

The huge numbers associated with a newly discovered planet remind us that analytics must keep results in perspective.

The announcement of the discovery of a new planet, Proxima b, that might be able to sustain life has tongues wagging, but don’t make your travel plans just yet.  The news reminds us that to make an impact, your audience must be able to relate to the results of your analytics.  Let’s put the data about this new planetary body into perspective.

For astronomers, Proxima b is relatively close by.  After all, it’s just 4.2 light years away from our solar system; that’s nearly 24.7 trillion miles.  Getting there will be half the fun, of course, though time-consuming and expensive.  For example:

  • The distance is the equivalent of nearly 2.5 billion Anchorage-Alaska-to-Miami-Florida roundtrips (in your Ford Galaxie, perhaps?).  At this morning’s cheapest gas prices and assuming you drive a more-thrifty 2016 Toyota Prius hybrid, GasBuddy’s trip planner estimates you’d spend $1059.72 for fuel on one such Earthly roundtrip.  To put it another way, the road-trip equivalent of a drive to Proxima b would cost you over $2.64 trillion in fuel costs alone -- and that’s just to get there.

  • Prefer to travel by air?  You’d need to fly around the world at the equator over 992 million times to travel the same distance, but think of the frequent flyer miles!

  • To keep comparisons astronomical, Proxima b is 103 million times as far away from us as is our own moon.

  • At a leisurely pace, you’ll need over 704 million years to walk there.  (Yes, we’ve factored in leap years.)  take lots of snacks and remember to charge your Fitbit 141 million times.

  • At a slightly faster nonstop race-walking pace an Olympian would admire, you would arrive in 352 million years. 

  • At 60 mph on the interstate, it would take you just under 47 million years to drive to Proxima b or 40 million years at 70 mph. (Forget the convertible in space, of course -- and the scenery may get a bit boring.)

  • Even Voyager 1, the space probe launched by NASA in 1977, would take almost 73 thousand years -- assuming it traveled at its top speed (38,610 MPH). 

What’ll you do with all that time?  A trip on Voyager would give you lots of time for binging. 

  • You can enjoy over 852 million hour-long episodes of Star Trek (sans commercials but not counting DVD extras)

  • You could watch 2001: A Space Odyssey roughly 255,790,458 times. 

  • You could listen to each of Spotify’s 30 million songs in its streaming catalog 426 times assuming an average song length of 3 minutes; you’ll only get through the catalog 319 times if songs average 4 minutes

  • The average reader should pack over 150 million average-length paperback novels or a tablet with room for 49,826 e-books

Also you’ll have plenty of opportunities to stumble on wild Pokemon to capture. The distance traveled will quickly hatch any eggs you find (for the uninitiated: each Pokemon egg has a distance you must walk before it will hatch -- 2, 5, or 10K, for example), so you should finally have them all by the time you arrive.

Of course, new technology will certainly trim that travel time. If you’re willing to hitch a ride on a spacecraft the size of a postage stamp (giving new meaning to “Let’s get small”), the $100 million Breakthrough Starshot Project may be able to get you to the binary star at the center of the Alpha Centauri system in just 20 years.  

Then make a U-turn -- it’s just a short hop (.24 light years back towards Earth) to get to Proxima Centauri, Proxima b’s sun and one of three stars comprising Alpha Centauri.

You might have a few things to carry, so wear your cargo pants.  Your “nanocraft” will be loaded with miniature cameras, navigation hardware, and communication gear (no need to take your cell phone).  For that matter, there's no need for bout rockets, either (that’s so 1970s anyway).  You’ll be propelled by sails that use light (and will be travelling at an amazing 20 percent the speed of light). 

Bundle Up

Scientists believe Proxima b may be habitable because of its position relative to its sun: at 4.7 million miles from Proxima Centauri, it’s not too far, not to near, but just right to sustain water on its surface (it won’t freeze, it won’t boil away).  Scientists aren’t saying that there’s water there, only that it would be possible to be there. In addition, that 4.7 million miles is just 5 percent of the distance between Earth and our own sun (remember the distance to the sun from grade school: 93 million miles), but Proxima Centauri is a much smaller star. 

Proximba b may not spin on its axis (some are questioning this assumption) and therefore just show one side to its sun.  Furthermore, because we don’t know what atmosphere the planet may have, temperatures (without atmosphere) could drop to -40 degrees Celsius (and, coincidentally, Fahrenheit, as math would have it).  Earth, by comparison is a relatively toasty 15 below (or 5 degrees Fahrenheit) at its coldest without atmosphere.  Forget the cargo pants; get out the down jackets and start layering.

You Don’t Look a Day Over 1000

Speaking of time, because it is so close to its sun, Proxima b’s orbit is short: just 11.2 Earth days.  That means residents of Proxima b can expect to:

  • Graduate from high school when they’re 587 (in “Pb years”)

  • Have their first marriage at about their thousandth year

  • Enjoy early retirement (55 Earth years) at 1800, give or take a few day

  • Wait until they are 2120 to reach full retirement (age 65 on Earth)

There’s no need to rush; the planet is expected to be around for some time.  Because Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf (and thus relatively cooler than our sun), astronomers expect that Proxima b will enjoy sunshine for trillions of years (its sun estimated to be just under 5 billion years old today).  Our sun is about halfway through its projected life span of 10 billion years).

More to Come

There’s much more data to come.  Debra Hurwitz Needham, a planetary geologist with NASA, puts the planetary find into perspective.

"The discovery of Proxima b is exciting to me on several levels.  Scientifically, I study the origin and evolution of planetary bodies in our Solar System to gain insight into where a planet came from, how it developed over time, and what the future might hold for our own home planet as it ages.  

“Each planet represents a unique data point, with distinct variables such as radius, gravitational strength, presence or absence of an atmosphere and/or water, and proximity to the Sun, that influence how that planet evolves.  The discovery of exoplanets in general is a boon to planetary science, expanding the natural laboratory we study to learn about the past, present, and future of planets in general and our own planet Earth in particular.  

“On a personal level, finding an Earth-like planet orbiting our nearest stellar neighbor inspires me to look at the stars and wonder, how many more planets will we discover, and how soon will we visit them ourselves?  We still have much to learn about how unique Earth is in the Universe, and -- although Proxima b is still far away -- we're now closer than ever before to exploring an exoplanet similar to our own."

Live long and prosper.

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