NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory intends to send a probe 4.4 light-years away to our nearest star system neighbor, Alpha Centauri, by the year 2069.
That’s a trip that will take quite a while — 44 years, as Engadget reports, if the probe can manage to travel just a tenth the speed of light. At that speed, it would reach the star by the year 2113. It would then take over four years for any data to return to us.
NASA has chosen 2069 as their target date of departure, as that’s when they believe the propulsion technology will exist to make such a long voyage feasible.
So what awaits us in Alpha Centauri, if we ever do make the trip?
Proxima b. That’s an Earth-sized exoplanet right in Proxima Centauri’s habitable zone, which could potentially harbor life. Unfortunately, due to powerful stellar winds, it’s unlikely we’d find life on the planet’s surface, as its atmosphere was likely stripped away long ago. However, according to the European Southern Observatory, if Proxima b does have an atmosphere, as well as liquid water left over from its formation, portions of its surface environment may sustain life.
Even if that isn’t the case, life could survive below the planet’s surface. NASA’s probe would be tasked with finding out, one way or the other.
Fun fact: Alpha Centauri is actually a triple star system, consisting of the two stars Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B (forming binary star system Alpha Centauri AB), as well as the red dwarf Alpha Centauri C, otherwise known as Proxima Centauri.
Proxima b, which orbits Proxima Centauri, was discovered just recently in 2016. For now, it remains the closest known exoplanet to our Solar System.
I’ve also seen a few people commenting that perhaps this would be a good opportunity for a colony ship. It’d likely be much slower than a simple probe, and a much more serious endeavor, too: A one-way journey to another star system, generations of people living aboard a single ship as it traverses the empty and treacherous vacuum of space. Would you volunteer? I’d have to think about it.
Meanwhile, it’s also possible NASA could get beat to the punch. In the private sector, the research and engineering project Breakthrough Starshot is hoping to make the same trip using light sail spacecraft in half the time.
That said, I have a feeling slow and steady ultimately wins the space race.
I suppose that’s the most unfortunate thing about this kind of news: It’s likely none of us here and now will be alive to see the voyage to Alpha Centauri completed, barring any breakthroughs in longevity or even cryogenics. But at least progress is being made.
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