May 10, 2021

NASA hopes to send a probe to Alpha Centauri in 2069

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A hand out image made available by the European Southern Observatory on August 24 2016, shows an artist’s impression of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. The double star Alpha Centauri AB also appears in the image between the planet and Proxima itself. Proxima b is a little more massive than the Earth and orbits in the habitable zone around Proxima Centauri, where the temperature is suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface.
Scientists on August 24, 2016 announced the discovery of an Earth-sized planet orbiting the star nearest our Sun, opening up the glittering prospect of a habitable world that may one day be explored by robots. Named Proxima b, the planet is in a “temperate” zone compatible with the presence of liquid water — a key ingredient for life. / AFP / EUROPEAN SOUTHERN OBSERVATORY / M. Kornmesser (Photo credit should read M. KORNMESSER/AFP/Getty Images)

By Jon Fingas From engadget

Even your grandkids might not be around to see the results.

If you thought NASA was playing the long game with its plan to put people on Mars in the 2030s, you haven’t seen anything yet. New Scientist has learned that a team at the administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory hasstarted planning a mission that would send a spacecraft to the Alpha Centauri system in… 2069. Yes, that’s 52 years away, and timed around the 100th anniversary of Apollo 11’s trip to the Moon. The probe would look for signs of life around the potentially habitable exoplanet Proxima b, giving humanity a much better look than it could get with observation from home.

So why the long wait? Simple: the technology to make this trip realistic doesn’t exist yet. The JPL is counting on propulsion technology advancing to the point where the results would come back in time to be meaningful. When Alpha Centauri is nearly 4.4 light-years away, a ship traveling at a tenth the speed of light would take 44 years to arrive. As such, it’s doubtful that you or even the next couple generations of your family would live to see the results. The probe wouldn’t reach the system until around 2113, and of course the data wouldn’t get back to Earth until 4.4 years later at best.

Nonetheless, it’s notable that NASA even has a mission like this on its radar, assuming budget cuts and other decisions get in the way. It’s starting to think about its role in the very long term, when interstellar exploration won’t just be limited to telescopes. And if the time frame gets you down, take heart. Breakthrough Starshot is hoping to launch a small probe that would both depart much sooner and travel much faster, arriving as quickly as 20 years. Think of NASA’s 2069 mission as a backup if Starshot doesn’t work, or a follow-up that could study the star system in greater depth.

IMAGE: M. Kornmesser/AFP/Getty Images

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