Will humans ever find themselves at home at Alpha Centauri?
With life on Earth facing increasing challenges as humans battle against massive problems like climate change and its ever-worsening consequences, people often wonder if humanity could possibly live on another planet. In the show "Lost in Space," which got a 2018 revival on Netflix after its original iteration in the 1960s, the Space Family Robinson family pursues doing exactly that. The show sees the family journeying out to a planet in Alpha Centauri, the closest solar system to our own. Season 3 of "Lost in Space" premieres today (Dec. 1) on Netflix.
But what might it actually be like for humans to not only travel to our nearby stellar neighborhood but actually live there?
Is Alpha Centauri habitable?
Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to Earth, is just 4 light-years away. However, while the star system is remarkably close by cosmic standard, 4 light-years is actually quite far away and, according to some estimates, would take roughly 6,300 years to get there with existing technology. So before even diving into the specifics of the system or its planets, no, humans can not yet go to Alpha Centauri and live there because, simply put, we wouldn't survive the trip.
The Alpha Centauri system actually has three stars. Two of these stars are like our sun and the third is a red dwarf named Proxima Centauri, which has at least two planets orbiting around it, one of which, a planet called Proxima b, scientists think could be an Earth-sized planet that lies in the star's habitable zone (an area around a star that is at a distance where liquid water can exist).
Scientists think that there could possibly be life at Alpha Centauri, and Proxima b is currently thought to be the most likely habitable world in the system, with its Earth-like size and distance from its star. However, research has shown that it might not support an Earth-like atmosphere and researchers are still working to understand more about the planet to more thoroughly assess its habitability.
While it's not thought that anything like human life exists in the system, researchers recently unveiled a new space telescope mission, called TOLIMAN, to explore this stellar system further and answer some questions about its planets.
Possibilities lost in space
"Lost in Space" showrunner Zack Estrin has saidthat the show takes into account some real-life knowledge about the Alpha Centauri star system to balance reality and fiction in the show. One such detail is its distance from Earth.
"If we wanted characters to actually go there, in what we currently have technology-wise, they really wouldn't be alive by the time they got there," Estrin told Space.com. He added that this was one reason why the show decided to introduce alien technology because it would theoretically allow the characters to travel so far so fast without having to "fake" human technology.
Now, despite the existing obstacles that would make it virtually impossible for humans to not only travel to Alpha Centauri, Estrin noted that "one of the really cool things … has been how the news has been, in a way, parallel in our journey."
"[It seems like] every couple of months there is the discovery of a new, possible habitable [world]," he added.
But does it make sense for humans to even consider life on another planet like this?
Exploring wild possibilities
"One of the reasons why the show has always been something that hooks into people, even back in the 60s and today, is that wish fulfillment that if we screw up Earth, that maybe that there's a hope for humanity," Estrin said.
However, he noted that "part of me thinks that that's damaging because it gives us an out for screwing up the planet."
"The hope for a place like Alpha Centauri is that you will be able to, in essence, recreate what we currently have here, which is, you know, the ability to go outside, go swimming in oceans, or lakes, or climb trees," Estrin said.
But this is "very different, I think, than the experience you would have," he said.
"If you were to settle Mars, say, where the environment is not as friendly, you'd be inside of a big dome," Estrin said. "And everything would be more genetically modified. And I think our hope for what a better future would be would be one where we actually could exist in a more Earth-like world where you could be outside, where you wouldn't have to be indoors for all time."
"One of the funny things about colonizing Mars I keep coming back to is yeah, sure, it's cool. But you'd just be making a mall, right? Essentially, you fly there and that would be cool. But it's not habitable, you can't really go outside [and it's] probably pretty dangerous," he said.