NASA scientists, not content with simply putting humans on the surface of Mars or launching probes to blow up one of Jupiter’s moons, are developing plans to send a probe all the way to Alpha Centauri, the closest solar system to our own. The space agency made the announcement at the recent American Geophysical Union conference in New Orleans, although they were quick to call this a “nebulous” plan at this early stage.
The nebulous plan in question is to send a craft that will travel at 10% of the speed of light. This is dramatically greater than the one man-made object outside of the solar system thus far, good old Voyager 1, which is traveling at a mere 0.001% of the speed of light (although in fairness to Voyager 1, it was never actually designed for long-distance travel between star systems).
There’s just one problem with getting a new probe to travel that far on its journey to another star: the technology hasn’t been invented yet.
Luckily, NASA scientists have taken into account that their plans might be slowed down a little by this metaphorical fly in the ointment, and as such, they don’t intend to launch their probe until the distant year of 2069, as a celebration of 100 years since the first time a human being walked on the moon.
NASA’s plan will have their probe visiting Alpha Centauri and checking out one of the system’s planets, Proxima-b, for signs of life. The planet does hold some potential as a fertile world, and even if that particular rock doesn’t hold life, it’s hoped that other planets in the system might prove promising as well.
While the specifics of NASA’s plan can’t really be decided on just yet, there’s a possibility that the probe might achieve its impressive speed through a theorized technique that involves shining a laser on biological micro-organisms in order to generate thrust.
The ethical implications of this are tricky, as is always the case with sending Earth bugs out into the cosmos, but as a commercial body is already planning to try something similar, NASA clearly figures there’s no harm in trying to beat them to the punch.
Even so, this probe probably won’t reach Alpha Centauri in our lifetime – even traveling at 10% of the speed of light, the journey is going to take a while. The star system is 4.4 light years away, which means that at the cruising speed that NASA is hoping to achieve, the trip will take forty four years – as such, it won’t be landing on Proxima-b for almost a century from now.
Obviously this entire endeavor is unlikely to take place in its current form. There’s no way that NASA will remain committed to such a plan, even as other technology develops and changes what might be possible, for another fifty years.
Still, though, eventually, humans will manage to get something all the way to Alpha Centauri. When that happens, let’s hope there’s something there that actually justifies the long wait.
References: Outer Places