NASA may be aiming for Alpha Centauri with a new mission proposed for launch in the year 2069. This would mark the 100th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin setting foot on the Moon. The goal of such a mission would be to explore the nearest alien star system to Earth in hopes of finding extraterrestrial life.
The voyage, the first one to another star, does not yet have a name, and researchers are only now beginning to develop plans for the first-ever interstellar mission from Earth. Most of the technology required for such a voyage has not yet been developed, and the journey would take decades to complete.
“It’s very nebulous,” explained Anthony Freeman at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which manages most NASA spacecraft exploring other worlds. Freeman made the announcement on December 12 at the 2017 American Geophysical Union conference held in New Orleans, Louisiana.
The idea was inspired, in part, by a 2016 federal funding bill directing NASA to study technology capable of sending spacecraft to velocities in excess of ten percent of the speed of light, roughly 30,000 km (18,750 miles) per second. By comparison, the Juno spacecraft which arrived at Jupiter in July 2016 clocked in a comparatively slow speed of 265,000 KPH (165,000 MPH), more than four hundred times slower than the proposed robotic spacecraft. Even at these speeds, it would take 50 years to reach our stellar neighbor and radio information back to Earth.
Alpha Centauri is a binary star system, known as Alpha Centauri A and B. This pair is joined by a third, small cool red dwarf designated with the letter C, but more commonly known as Proxima Centauri. At least one planet orbiting this system may be able to support life.
“Using the European Space Organization’s HARPS instrument, astronomers already discovered a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B. Then on Aug. 24, 2016, astronomers announced the intriguing discovery of a nearly Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone orbiting the star Proxima Centauri,” NASA reported in 2017.
NASA has not yet committed to the plan, but a small band of proponents at the agency hope their idea of journeying to the nearest star becomes a part of the future of the human race.