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A long way from Alpha Centauri

Our terribly sensible attitude to space exploration is tested by exciting new discoveries.

Just when you think that you’re getting to know your neighbours, everything changes. And sadly there’s very little we can do about it.

In the past couple of weeks, not only have we realised that there’s a planet in the star system next door, but it turns out the moon and the earth may not be what we thought. You spend 200,000 years getting to know your surroundings and then – bam – suddenly everything is wrong.

“Bam” is the appropriate word here. One of the things we have learned is that the cosmic collision that created the moon may also have created the earth.

The received wisdom has long been that a Mars-sized planet known as Theia collided with the young earth 4.5 billion years ago, and the resulting debris came together to form the moon.

Two new papers have destroyed this neat story. It turns out that other types of creation scenario become possible when you think to consider the influence of the sun on the rotation of the newly formed earth and moon.

So, it could be that a tiny projectile hit a fast-spinning young earth and threw out enough debris to coalesce into the moon, slowing earth’s rotation to its present rate. Equally plausible is the idea that two fast-spinning, half-earth-sized lumps of rock collided and merged to become our slow-spinning earth, again with debris forming a moon.

Both of these ideas resolve a nagging flaw in the Theia idea. The Apollo missions brought back lunar rocks that show the moon to be geologically more similar to earth than the original impact story would allow. The thing is, with the new fast-spin scenario allowed, anything is possible. Researchers expect a slew of hypotheses over the next few months; we have to admit we have no idea now how the earth or the moon formed.

As if that weren’t humbling enough, it turns out we’d missed an earth-sized planet that is orbiting our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri. It’s not that we hadn’t looked: the twin stars of Alpha Centauri have been a prime focus for planet-hunters. Yet, somehow, this one slipped through the net.

Planet-hunting astronomers are excited because, they say, everything we know about planet formation indicates that there should be others like it in the Alpha Centauri system and elsewhere in the Milky Way.

It is indeed exciting – yet these discoveries expose a gaping hole in our quest to discover where we came from and where we might be going. There is no way to get to Alpha Centauri. The way things are, there never will be. We aren’t even in any position to put a man on the moon.

Bye, tech

The space shuttle Endeavour made a painfully slow journey through the streets of Los Angeles to its resting place at the California Science Centre a fortnight ago and it made for dismal viewing. Hours later we watched, inspired, as a man used cutting-edge technology to fall to earth from the edge of space. But let’s not miss that he got up there using a balloon filled with helium. Idiots in armchairs have got close to doing that.

The technology that put men on the moon – that enabled them to gather the moon rocks that told us the Theia theory was probably wrong – has been retired for decades. Now we have little scope for checking new theories or, with an ingenious innovation, checking out new planets. Robotic space exploration seems like a pragmatic and sensible use of resources until it hits home that we are once again earthbound.

It’s at moments like these, when the universe has teased us with revelations, that our terribly sensible strategy for modern space exploration feels more like a foolish mistake.

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99).

By Michael Brooks

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At The Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science By Surprise.

This article first appeared in Something Rotten