Jet Propulsion Laboratory Plans Interstellar Mission to "Nearby" Alpha Centauri in 2069

Published : Wednesday, December 27, 2017 | 4:34 PM

Photograph courtesy European Southern Observatory

NASA scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory are now working on what could become one of the most ambitious undertakings of mankind-sending a probe on a 40-year mission to Alpha Centauri, our solar system’s nearest neighbor, according to a JPL manager.

At the recent fall conference of the American Geophysical Union in New Orleans, Anthony Freeman, manager of the Innovation Foundry at JPL, presented the concept paper titled “The First Interstellar Explorer,” revealing that a 2016 NASA funding bill has sped up a project to study what kind of propulsion technology could send the probe Alpha Centauri.

With the technology to enable that speed still non-existent, the project has not been named yet, but Freeman says there is enough time to work on the technicalities since it would be about 50 years before such a mission could be launched.

As Freeman explained, the mission will be divided into six stages, the first of which is the simplest: traveling outside the solar system, a feat that the Voyager 1 spacecraft has already accomplished.

The other five stages include surviving the journey to Proxima Centauri, lowering the speed on approach, making a trajectory adjustment for a near encounter, getting data, and relaying the information collected back to Earth.

“It’s very nebulous,” Freeman said when asked what stage the project is now in.

Voyager 1 was launched in 1977 as part of the Voyager system to study the outer Solar System. As of November 22, 2017, the spacecraft was about 13 billion miles from the Sun and is the farthest spacecraft and human-made object from Earth.

Alpha Centauri is 4.3 light-years away or about 25 trillion miles from Earth. With a spacecraft as fast as Voyager, it would take almost 80,000 years to get to the system.

If NASA is ever able to develop a spacecraft that could travel at 10 percent the speed of light, it would still take 44 years to get to Alpha Centauri, New Scientist says.

Apart from NASA, Breakthrough Initiatives, a $100-million program created by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, also has its sights set on Alpha Centauri and is planning to reach 20 percent of the speed of light with its “Breakthrough Starshot.” The project plans to reach 20 percent of light speed using a tiny wafer attached to a super-thin sail propelled by laser beams. Milner and physicist Stephen Hawking announced the project in April 2016, describing each of these “wafersats” envisioned in the project as about 10 centimeters across—small enough to fit in the palm of your hand—and weighing just a few grams, with meter-wide light sails that will be powered by 100-gigawatt lasers fired from Earth, dumping enormous amounts of energy into the sail.

At 20 percent the speed of light, these minute spacecraft, loaded with tiny sensors, would be able to make the trip to Alpha Centauri in about 20 years.



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