Mankind hasn’t yet explored some of the most interesting objects in our own solar system — heck, we still don’t even know all that much about Earth itself — but that isn’t stopping NASA from setting its sights at a destination so distant that it would take decades for a spacecraft to even get there. A tentative mission is currently being outlined that would see NASA send a spacecraft on an interstellar mission to explore the Alpha Centauri system.
The proposed journey, which was revealed by scientists with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the 2017 Geophysical Union Conference and reported by New Scientist, was born out of a budget mandate to make progress on interstellar travel. Now, NASA is working on technology that, if all goes as planned, could allow a spacecraft to reach ten percent of light speed, and the goal is to have it ready by 2069 with Alpha Centauri in its sights.
Alpha Centauri is a system made up of three stars, with the two primary stars being Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B, and the third — thought to possibly be merely passing through the system — is Proxima Centauri. The system is around 4.3 light years from Earth, which essentially makes it a next-door neighbor. If NASA succeeds at achieving ten percent of light speed with a spacecraft, it would allow them to reach the system with a probe in as little as 44 years.
At the moment, astronomers know that the star system does indeed have at least one planet in orbit. Other planets have been theorized, but data to prove their existence has been hard to come by. Our best bet at learning exactly what worlds are orbiting the nearby system may be to simply visit it ourselves with an observational spacecraft.
The biggest hurdle in this proposed mission for NASA to overcome is the development of the propulsion technology that would allow a probe to travel the massive distance in a relatively short period of time. A number of possible techniques have been proposed, including laser-propelled sails which could be pushed to incredible speeds, but putting such theoretical technology into practice is easier said than done.
If NASA, or any other space agency or private company for that matter, manages to achieve interstellar travel, Alpha Centauri will almost certainly be their first target. We just don’t know what we’re going to find when we get there.