Flight to Alpha Centauri: NASA’s mission is ready to roll

Політ на Альфу Центавра: міжзоряна місія NASA на старті

NASA is about to launch its first research probe to the nearest star system – Alpha Centauri. It is expected that this will be done in 2069. So far we have no technologies that may translate the intentions of the scientists into action, but, nevertheless, Space Administration is up to do this.

Human has always wanted to find “space brothers” – sentient beings. Since the beginning of time, there was a belief that other people, superhuman powers, gods or heroes live somewhere in the interior of the Earth or “in the sky”. When the searches in Earth’s womb led to no result, human started to dream of human beings residing on the Moon and Mars. At this stage, when expeditions to Mars have translated into reality, theories stating that there is life on other stellar system have emerged. And now, NASA is going to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first moon landing by sending the robotic spacecraft to neighboring star system.

United States Senate Committee on Appropriations has drafted the document evidencing the efforts centered on enabling such a mission to Alpha Centauri. Section on investments in space technologies development includes, inter alia (in addition to mission to Mars), “interstellar propulsion research”. It is reported that despite advancements of NASA in creation of chemical, nuclear thermal, and solar electric propulsions, none of these could approach cruise velocities of 1/10 the speed of light. U.S. government appeals to NASA to create technology able to send space vehicle to the nearest stars by the one-hundredth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Propulsion concepts may include fusion-based implementations (including antimatter-catalyzed fusion and the Bussard interstellar ramjet), matter-antimatter annihilation reactions, beamed energy approaches, solar sails, etc. In theoretical terms, these and other technologies shall drive the “wafer-sized” (300-450 mm in diameter) spacecraft at a speed of 0,1c, which will let us reach the nearest star system in about 44 years.

Sure thing, the document was prepared in cooperation with NASA, and thus it gives us a clear picture of NASA’s further intentions. At this point in time, it is known that the team of developers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL Team) have not stopped at any particular technology so far. However, ion engine developments have already started, and solar sail is already being developed as a part of Breakthrough Project.

The remarkable thing is that it is a challenging task to get to Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to the Solar System, within a reasonable time frame by one generation of humans that will launch it and will testify its arrival at destination point. In the meantime, only one spacecraft launched by the human managed to go beyond our stellar system – Voyager 1. It was launched 40 years ago and its current speed is 10,000 less than the speed of light. The speed of the fastest planetary space probe Helios was 250,000 kph (155,342 mph), which means that it would take it 18,000 years to reach Alpha Centauri system. We need the speed, which is 400 times more, to get to the nearest stars in 44 years.

Alpha Centauri

Despite the fact that the stellar system in the Centaurus constellation is called “Alpha” (i.e. “the brightest star of the constellation”), in sober fact this was determined by history – it was entitled long before it was found that it consists of three stars. Two stars – Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B – form one bright star. The third star, visible to the naked eye, – Proxima Centauri or rather Alpha Centauri C, – is currently the closest one to the Solar system. The distance to Proxima Centauri is (4,242 1 ± 0,001 6) light years. It is still unknown to what star of the Alpha Centauri system the first mission will make its way.