by Emily Wurst

For as long as people have known about planets other than our own, there has been curiosity about extraterrestrial life. With the recent discovery of exoplanets surrounding stars near our own sun, these discussions have become more serious and even feasible. Dr. Nick Sterling of the University of West Georgia's College of Science and Mathematics recently explored this very idea with his public lecture “Proxima Centauri b: The Exoplanet Next Door.”

Dr. Sterling smiles, posing for a photograph in a black tee shirt.Proxima Centauri b is an exoplanet discovered in 2016 that lies within its star’s habitable zone. This means that water, and even life, have the potential to exist on the planet. Additionally, several other earth-mass planets have been discovered in the past month surrounding the star TRAPPIST-1. All of these planets were the topic of Sterling’s lecture.

“Proxima Centauri b was discovered in 2016, and it really caught my attention because this planet orbits the closest star to our solar system,” said Sterling, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics. “And it's not just any old planet - its mass is very similar to Earth's, and it lies in the habitable zone; that is, it's at the right distance from its star for liquid water to be able to exist on its surface. But Proxima Centauri is a very cool, dim star compared to the sun, which makes properties of this planet quite unique.”

This lecture is the third installment in Sterling’s Infinite Universe program, a series of talks directed toward engaging the community in astronomy. All of Sterling’s talks in this series are inspired by recent or interesting discoveries within the field of astronomy.

“This is one of the most dynamic, rapidly changing fields of astronomy - the search for life outside of our Solar system,” noted Sterling in his lecture. “How cool is it that we are getting so close?”

Each event in the Infinite Universe series is open to anyone in the public. The talks, which take place once each academic semester, are designed to fuel interest in astronomy among anyone in the communities surrounding UWG.

“I especially am interested engaging the community and middle/high-school students in the west Georgia region,” said Sterling.

The event’s audience—a diverse group ranging from children to adults—all gathered to hear about these recent scientific discoveries. Attendees included UWG students and faculty, high schoolers from neighboring towns like Newnan and Douglasville, and astronomy enthusiasts from as far as Fayetteville.

Artist's rendering of exoplanet with its sun in the distance lighting one side of it.Sterling’s lecture walked listeners through the history of discovering exoplanets throughout hundreds of years, up to Proxima Centauri b’s discovery in 2016. He explained how this exoplanet was discovered by astronomers in Chile and investigated the question on everyone’s mind: is it possible for life to exist on this planet?

“To me, there is nothing more exciting in astronomy than the search for life outside of our solar system,” said Sterling.

Throughout his lecture, Sterling kept his audience engaged with humor and encouraged participation and responses. He ended his talk with a question and answer session, which led to a discussion of potential interstellar travel to further investigate exoplanets such as Proxima Centauri b.

“We are in uncharted territory here,” marveled Sterling, “and the fact that we have the tools to embark on this voyage is truly amazing.”

Posted on March 17, 2017