NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory unveiled plans for an Alpha Centauri mission that could launch as early as 2069 at the 2017 Geophysical Union Conference. This tentative mission answers a budget mandate to look into the possibility of interstellar travel.
Alpha Centauri is a three-star system residing 4.3 light-years from Earth and consisting of Alpha Centauri A, Alpha Centauri B, and Proxima Centauri. (Why not Alpha Centauri C? Well, scientists believe that Proxima Centauri may only be passing through the system.) It contains one known planet and scientists theorize that it could contain more, but haven’t been able to collect enough data to confirm it.
The primary thing to remember about interstellar travel is that we haven’t invented warp drive yet and getting anywhere takes lots of patience. A theoretical interstellar spacecraft would take about 44 years to travel to Alpha Centauri if it accelerates to 1/10 light speed, and then a radio signal would take 4.3 years to get back to us. However, scientists believe that it would be worth the wait because they could directly observe the known exoplanet and any other planets in the Alpha Centauri system.
The largest hurdle is deciding on and developing a propulsion system that could accelerate a spacecraft to at least 1/10 lightspeed so that it can reach Alpha Centauri in decades rather than centuries. The Planetary Society’s 2015 test of a solar sail suffered from technical glitches, but it plans to try again with Lightsail 2 as early as Spring 2018. Laser-propelled sails have also been proposed, though not much progress has been made on this theoretical technology yet.
The Alpha Centauri mission is still so new that it doesn’t have a name yet. “It’s very nebulous,” acknowledged JPL’s Anthony Freeman, who presented this early look at the mission at the Geophysical Union Conference. Will it actually launch, though? Stay tuned, because even if NASA never actually gets around to it, a private organization like the Planetary Society is likely to pick up the ball.