ALMA, Proxima b, and Starship Research

By Buck Field

Since August 2016's announcement of Proxima b, research attention has focused on "habitability" or "suitability for life".

Other than an actual message from intelligent aliens, indications of life could motivate development of faster than light (FTL) capability more than any single discovery we might imagine. This possibility of finding clues of life currently drives a great deal of speculation and creativity around the design of astronomy projects to find such evidence. While knowing the focus of an effort is important, perhaps even more so is the perspective from which our activities come. In this case, mine are based primarily on Project Management Institute guidelines for business analysis (BA), which emphasize the broadest possible understanding of needs and creation of high quality requirements that are necessary for more successful outcomes. The term “business” is used in a broad sense, applicable to any identifiable groups, such as government, non-profit, and ad-hoc citizen organizations

If our general requirement is evidence of exo-planet life, what might a successful project to deliver such evidence look like? This is the question that prompted me to visit the world's largest ground-based telescope, high in the mountains of South America's Atacama. This driest desert in the world also has the clearest skies, offering unparalleled conditions for ground-based observation. Because of the Centauri system's southern declination, the Chilean and Australian observatories have significant advantages.

Adele Plunkett, stellar formation expert at the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) facility, and I explored the role her facility might play in a comprehensive program to find indicators of life in the yard of our closest stellar neighbor. While planning for biomarker observation missions is in its infancy, detailed scoping of such projects will remain out of reach, so our conversations focused on ALMA’s current and near-term observational capabilities, priorities, and future advances in the facility’s research options. 

Buck Field (left) and Adele Plunkett (right) at ALMA

Because one of the first released images produced by ALMA was of interstellar sugar molecules, I asked about detection of biomarkers that might be detectable in space. Plunkett, an expert in circumstellar disks “that form stars and planets” emphasized a widely held priority: establishing the precise orbit of Proxima b. This should open the door to more detailed investigations into atmospheric erosion from stellar wind, and planning future observations. Plunkett’s pride in the observatory, enthusiasm for its mission, and appreciation of its one-of-a-kind capabilities is obvious...and contagious.

If and when such biomarkers are confirmed, the attraction to reach these distant worlds will be overpowering. If we are lucky, it could even tip decision-makers to allocate resources needed to meet the most extreme technological challenge in our history and to make such a journey possible.

When faced with daunting new challenges, our brain interprets the current situation relative to what we've experienced in the past. It compares what we know of successes and failure to get a feel for how well our current problems might be solved. This process is nearly always unconscious and risky, but it was evolved to be fast and optimized enough to beat out competing DNA codes. For hundreds of thousands of years, mythical stories were perfectly adequate explanations of the cosmos. Doubts about whether most of us still process information this way are easily put to rest by reading the public comments criticizing opposing political positions in the U.S.

More complex problems and societies led to development logic for managing clear reasoning. The desire to reduce the number of disputes settled by duels encouraged evidence-based science. Further complexity in industrial scale activities led to development of management and decision sciences. Exploring Proxima b and other planets to contact life could very well demand the most reliable thinking in human history. Space and science leadership communities generally lack experts formally trained in strategic analysis.

With detection of exo-planet biomarkers, we may reach a critical mass of support for all the necessary and sufficient components, from strategic analysis and planning to deployment of the systems that will take future generations to the stars, and back.

 If we are smart, careful, and lucky, we will make today's visions of science fiction into humanity's future reality.