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.