Yesterday, the European Southern Observatory announced they'd confirmed the existence of a planet in Alpha Centauri, the star system nearest to Earth. For many of us, it was like a dream come true. In the annals of science fiction, Alpha Centauri is like the Mars of star systems. Because it's the closest system to our own — only 4.3 light years away! — we've spent decades speculating about colonizing the place. Or meeting the aliens who already live there.
To celebrate the discovery of Alpha Centauri Bb (as this hot little planet is called), we present to you a list of fictional planets that science fiction had discovered in Alpha Centauri long ago.
No, this is not the definitive list. So please continue adding to it in comments below.
1. Unnamed planet in Lost in Space
Few people remember this, but Dr. Smith and the Robinson family were actually on their way to a planet in Alpha Centauri when they got knocked off course and . . . lost in spaaaaaace! How they got lost in the pretty much empty space between Earth and Alpha Centauri remains a mystery.
2. Rakhat in The Sparrow
If you haven't yet read Mary Doria Russell's novel The Sparrow, it's time. Earth begins receiving radio transmissions from the planet Rakhat in Alpha Centauri, but no space agencies are willing to fund a mission there. Instead, the only group to step up is the Catholic Church, which sends a missionary to spread the word of God — and a group of scientists come along for the ride. When they arrive, they discover a peculiar society where one intelligent species rules over another. Once the missionary reaches his destination, and finds the source of the radio signals, you'll be treated to a tragically realistic portrait of first contact.
3. Alpha III M2 in Clans of the Alphane Moon
Philip K. Dick couldn't possibly write about a planet in the Alpha Centauri system without bringing in a sentient slime mold, insect people, and a world devoted entirely to satellite-based psychiatry for people who have gone crazy from the stresses of space colonization. Plus, there is a guy trying to kill his soon-to-be-ex-wife via remote control, and a heroic comedian.
4. Pasadena in Songs of Distant Earth
In Arthur C. Clarke's novel The Songs of Distant Earth, about a generation ship of humans racing to escape a supernova in our system, there's a reference to a planet in the Alpha Centauri system named Pasadena. Presumably this is an hommage to the city where CalTech and the Jet Propulsion Lab are located in Southern California.
5. Wunderland in The Man-Kzin Wars
After Larry Niven wrote his famous novel Ringworld, he spent a while writing books that filled in the backstory on humanity's relationship with the catlike warrior people known as the Kzin. In this novel, we hear about a world that the Kzin captured in their long war with humans — it's called Wunderland, and it's in the Alpha Centauri system.
6. Cybertron in Transformers
That's right — Optimus Prime is originally from Alpha Centauri! In the Marvel comics, we find out that Cybertron originally orbited a star in the Alpha Centauri system, but was blown out of orbit and sent spinning across the galaxy.
7. Polyphemus in Avatar
The moon Pandora, home to the blue cat Na'vi people, is in orbit around the planet Polyphemus, itself in the Alpha Centauri star system. Director James Cameron has promised that we'll explore more of the system in later movies, so maybe he'll give us a little more Alpha Centauri action in the Avatar sequels.
8. Demeter in Harvest of Stars
In a classic dark tale, Pohl Anderson tells the story of how the Fireball Company sends a bunch of human refugees to live on the doomed planet Demeter — sure it will collide with another planet in a thousand years, but in the meantime, the company can dump some humans there. Maybe they'll figure out how to survive.
9. Chiron in Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri
In the game Alpha Centauri, Chiron is a planet in the Alpha Centauri system. As the game opens, two rival factions land on the planet — and we discover that an alien intelligence has been experimenting with the idea of making the entire planet sentient. Like the moon Pandora. Also, there are sentient funguses.
10. Unnamed planet in Doctor Who's "Curse of Peladon"
In this classic story, we meet representatives from Alpha Centauri, strangely phallic creatures with squeaky voices who are referred to only as "Alpha Centauri." As in, "Welcome Alpha Centauri, delegate of Alpha Centauri." Apparently everybody on their homeworld has the same name?
11. Centauri Prime in Babylon 5 Actually, Centauri Prime is in the Zeta Tucanae system.
Scheming nobleman Londo Mollari is from a planet known only as Centauri Prime, one of several planets in the system that make up the Centauri Republic.
Bonus: ??? in Neuromancer
At the end of William Gibson's groundbreaking cyberpunk tale, the AI Neuromancer/Wintermute goes to visit an AI it has discovered in Alpha Centauri. Is this AI on a planet, or is its mind state just hovering somewhere in the system? We'll never know.