A group of scientists at NASA is looking into the possibility of launching an interstellar mission in 2069 to one of our nearest stars. It’s unlikely anyone alive today will see the fruits of the mission, but the scientific return would be undeniable.
First reported by New Scientist, the mission would involve sending a spacecraft at 10 percent the speed of light to Alpha Centauri, our nearest star system at 4.2 light-years away. The spacecraft would be put into orbit around a planet there and look for signs of life.
“The 2069 date has a certain resonance for those of us who work in NASA, being the 100th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landings,” Anthony Freeman, manager of the Formulation Office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, told IFLScience. He presented the concept at the 2017 American Geophysical Union conference in New Orleans on December 12.
At that speed, it would likely take the spacecraft a century or more to reach the planet. Many of the technologies that would be required for such a mission do not yet exist, so this is very much just a concept. But it would offer the chance to study another planet like never before, and return incredible data to Earth.
That would include using the spacecraft to study the planet, and perhaps look for signs of intelligent life such as artificial lights or buildings. A huge telescope could be launched into deep space a few years after the spacecraft launched, to study the target planet before it arrived.
“Critical technologies would have to be brought to a much greater level of maturity before we could approach any kind of formal approval process,” said Freeman.
“The key challenge for any interstellar mission is getting up to some fraction of light speed using propulsion technologies that are conceivable using current projections.”
This is not the only proposal for an interstellar mission. One, Breakthrough Starshot, would involve sending a laser-propelled sail on a flyby of Proxima b with a journey time in the decades. A modified version of this mission, proposed by scientists René Heller and Michael Hippke, could even return a sample to Earth on a timescale of about a century.
For Freeman's mission, what that target planet could be isn’t known yet. At the moment we only know of one planet in the Alpha Centauri system, Proxima b, which is the closest planet to Earth. There may well be others, with a recent study suggesting there could be habitable planets there, but we haven’t found them yet.
Such proposals also face the major hurdle of the longevity of the missions. The flyby ideas alone would take decades, while an orbital mission would span generations. Heller, however, thinks that the Voyager 1 and 2 probes – which have been traveling into interstellar space for 40 years – are proof there is an appetite.
“I am sure that a generation of both scientists and non-scientists would be emotionally connected to the work that their immediate ancestors would have planned, built, and launched,” he said.
Alpha Centauri may not be the only possible target, too. If we find other nearby stars with habitable planets, they could be the target of grand missions like these. And as we discover more potentially habitable worlds, the idea of actually visiting one is hugely exciting.
“Voyager is becoming the first interstellar spacecraft, but the idea of sending a probe to a system that may have an Earth-like planet is something we need to take seriously,” Patrick Troutman from NASA's Langley Research Center told IFLScience.
There's a long way to go with any of these concepts, and indeed the idea from Freeman's team isn't anywhere near being approved yet. But maybe in a century or more, our descendants will enjoy the fruits of our labors as they receive the first images from orbit around an exoplanet. That would certainly be worth waiting for.
[H/T: New Scientist]