As long as we’ve studied the stars, humans have searched for the possibility of life on another planet, of another Earth. That quest by astronomers has yielded some candidates, like Gliese 667Cc and Kepler-452b, the most similar exoplanet to Earth. But all of these possibilities lie so far outside our reach and so many light years away, our current space travel capabilities fall short.
A new hope has emerged, though. The Pale Red Project and European Southern Observatory recently announced the discovery of a potentially habitable planet. Its name: Proxima b. (If that name doesn’t get the juices flowing…) The planet revolves around Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the sun, and exists within the star’s Habitable Zone, which means temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold to sustain liquid water. That doesn’t mean Proxima b does have flowing water (which is necessary for life as we know it), just that it’s possible.
All of this is wonderful news. While at 4.2 light years away, scientists don’t believe Proxima b is outside our realm of future space travel. It’s a possibility at least. As astronomy professor Ignas Snellen told the Guardian says, “This is the discovery of the year and possibly of the decade.”
Now why does this search for other habitable exoplanets outside of Earth persist so? A scientist would likely reason our journey through the stars helps explain our story within the known universe — how we came to be, and also how we could come to pass. That latter is rather haunting as we all (kind of) believe we’re gonna ruin Earth, right?
It all leads to a personal, deeper fear. Say we discover that Proxima b lends itself to hospitable life conditions: flowing water, a good-enough atmosphere, some intense-looking animals. A fixer-upper will do. Send in the planet version of the Property Brothers, and it’ll be looking like that new home planet away from our home planet we always wanted!
But here’s my worry that I secretly believe others share: How are we going to fuck this up? A new planet sounds great, but the old one’s got some problems, too. This isn’t like college, where you can jump from relationship to relationship without leaving a wake of destruction and broken homes (planets) in your path. We got to make it work.
First worry: We’re space-traveling, traversing the light years, because we’re awesome and figured out speedy navigation through the stars. Perhaps the Em Drive turned into a fruitful and worthwhile discovery. So we send out a small team—comprised of, I don’t know, Matt Damon, Matthew McConaughey, Zoe Saldana, George Takei, HAL 9000, and Louis Gosset Jr.’s alien son that Dennis Quad raised—and either during the landing, or as they’re exploring the planet, they introduce an alien element or disease into the planet’s atmosphere.
Like, after testing the atmosphere, realizing the air is breathable, an astronaut gets ballsy and takes off their helmet to test it. Forgoing all scientific processes and procedures, this astronaut takes matters into their own hands (the likely candidate: Damon, obviously). But it works! They’re breathing and soon everyone’s removing their helmets, breathing and if it were a movie, maybe “Here Comes The Sun” would play, or maybe “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy.” Either works for this scene. Even HAL’s laughing, joyous, rapturous in delight.
Then someone sneezes. Or coughs. And we introduce foreign illnesses into the atmosphere and the flora and fauna do not possess the antibodies necessary to combat our Earth diseases. Half the species die out overnight and the plants wither away. The chain reaction irreparably damages the fragile atmosphere, disrupting oxygen and carbon levels, and boom, planet ruined. Ask the Native Americans how likely this can happen.
Too many What Ifs there, dude, you’re likely thinking. And I get it. Most dismiss this kind of anxious paranoia style of thought. Most humans are optimistic creatures, which is fine. But that kind of optimism led millions of people to dismiss global warming for decades, and some still rationalize it away, so…
Speaking of which, how incredibly likely is it we discover some type of valuable resource deep beneath the planet’s core? This type of fuel could open further space travel capabilities or revolutionize human life as we know it. We’ll call this the Avatar predicament, for lack of a better term. All the sudden we’re sending space drills and excavating the crust exterior of Earth 2.0. Or some cowboy hat-wearing “entrepreneur” introduces some novel concept he terms as “bracking.”
How many negative outcomes could happen? I’ll wait…(still waiting)…A million! You can’t count them. Dig too deep and hit a core we didn’t know expanded far beyond our own. Molten lava erupts, turning us into white ash Pompeii-style, and encrusts the planet with inhabitable terrain. It will take like hundred-thousands of years for the planet’s atmosphere to reset to its natural equilibrium. And by then, we’ve surely destroyed Earth and the human race become another lost story in the universe.
Then there’s the whole starting-another-civilization on another planet angle to consider. Miraculously, everything goes (mostly) according to plan, and we manage life on Proxima b. Incredible. But who leaves, who stays behind on Earth? Is it a lottery system? Or does it become a class system? Does a social media campaign begin to include certain people? Is it a Snowpiercer-style train we all climb aboard, escaping a nuclear winter, hoping those who made it either don’t cannibalize or murder or whatever one another before reaching Proxima b? What corporations sponsor the voyage? Does Proxima b turn into Proxima Wally World? What if other hominid life forms exist on this planet already? Do we attempt to co-habit, because we’re like really bad at that.
Anyways, the real news here is simple: We discovered something really, really exciting. Let’s not screw it up.