- Alpha Centauri Is Our Closest Star System And Provides Opportunity To Find Alien Life
- But it is 4.37 light years away and will take thousands of years to reach
- Scientists are developing a laser-powered sail to travel 24 trillion miles in 20 years
- Millions of lasers on Earth will illuminate sails and advance interstellar travel
It is the closest star system to us and probably offers the best chance of finding alien life – but with current technology it would take thousands of years to reach Alpha Centauri.
The good news is that scientists have found a way for human life to get there in space.
This includes a laser-powered sail that he claims could one day allow us to travel 24 trillion miles and reach our nearest stellar neighbor within 20 years.
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Concept: Scientists are developing a laser-powered sail (pictured in an artist’s impression) that they claim could allow us to travel 24 trillion miles to Alpha Centauri within 20 years.
What is Alpha Centauri and how do we get there?
The Alpha Centauri star system is 24 trillion miles (4.37 light years) away.
With today’s fastest spacecraft, it would take thousands of years to get there.
Breakthrough Starshot aims to establish whether a gram-scale nanocraft can fly a thousand times faster on a sail pushed by a light beam.
Astronomers estimate that an Earth-like planet is reasonably likely to exist in the ‘habitable zones’ of Alpha Centauri’s three-star system.
The new type of spacecraft propulsion system has been designed by scientists at the Australian National University (ANU) as part of an international initiative aimed at exploring the world around Alpha Centauri.
The Breakthrough Starshot project calls for the design of an ultra-lightweight spacecraft, which acts as a light-sail, traveling with unprecedented speed to the triple star system 4.37 light-years away.
While this is a great distance in terrestrial terms, it is three times closer than the next closest Sun-like star.
The concept will see the probe launched into space by a laser propulsion system.
The light to power the cell would come from Earth’s surface – involving millions of lasers to illuminate the sail and push it on its interstellar journey.
“To cover the vast distance between Alpha Centauri and our own solar system, we must think outside the box and create a new approach to interstellar space travel,” said study lead author Dr. Chatura Bandutunga.
‘Once on its way, the sail will fly through the vacuum of space for 20 years before reaching its destination. During its flight to Alpha Centauri, it will record images and scientific measurements that it will transmit back to Earth.’
Alpha Centauri is 4.37 light-years away and home to three stars: Centauri A, Centauri B, and Proxima Centauri. An artist’s impression of the star system closest to us is painted
The picture is a non-scale representation of how far Proxima b is from Earth compared to Voyager 1, the most distant man-made object that was launched in 1977.
However, a potential obstacle is the sheer scale of lasers needed to send the probe on its way, as well as getting them to function as one.
“The Breakthrough Starshot program estimates the total required optical power to be about 100 GW – about 100 times the capacity of the world’s largest battery today,” said Dr Robert Ward from the ANU Research School of Physics.
‘To achieve this, we estimate the number of lasers to be around 100 million.’
Proxima b: Earth’s closest exoplanet
Proxima b is the closest exoplanet to Earth and the closest planet to the star Proxima Centauri.
It orbits within the star’s habitable zone – but as Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf and much smaller than the Sun, the region is much closer to the star.
Proxima b orbits its star every 11.2 Earth days and has a mass of about 1.2 times that of Earth.
The rocky world is subject to solar winds 2,000 times that experienced on Earth from the Sun.
Although it is within a region where liquid water can form – these stellar winds make life less likely to develop.
This planet was discovered in August 2016 and is probably completely closed.
For these reasons, despite being in a habitable zone, its actual habitability could not be established.
Studies have suggested that the planet may have surface oceans and a thin atmosphere, but this has not been confirmed.
Astronomers won’t know whether it contains water or an atmosphere until it can be seen passing in front of its star – which hasn’t happened yet.
If water and an atmosphere are present, even with widespread radiation, it is possible that life may have evolved on the planet.
Scientists hope the James Webb Space Telescope – due to come online in November this year – can explore Proxima Centauri b’s atmosphere.
There is also a theoretical mission to send a probe to the planet in 2069 to search for the biosignature.
To organize the show, the ANU design calls for a beacon satellite – a guide laser placed in Earth orbit that acts as a conductor to bring all the lasers together.
Dr Bandutunga said that like the last light-sail, research is at the beginning of a long journey.
“While we are confident with our design, the proof is in the pudding,” he said.
‘The next step is to start testing some of the basic building blocks in a controlled laboratory setting. It includes the concepts of combining smaller arrays to form larger arrays and atmospheric correction algorithms.
‘Work was done at ANU to see if the idea would work. Its goal was to find out-of-the-box solutions, simulate them and determine if they are physically feasible.’
In 2017, NASA revealed that it had begun planning a mission to Alpha Centauri, with hopes of exploding on the 100th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission in 2069.
For now only two…