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]