Proxima Centauri is the closest star to us besides the sun, and coincidentally, also has a planet orbiting around it--known only as Proxima Centauri b--that's inside the habitable zone. In case you didn't know, that means that, with the right amount of atmospheric pressure, it's possible that Proxima Centauri b could have liquid water on its surface.
So, some say, forget Mars. It's about time we started looking for alien life on this extrasolar neighbor of ours.
But alas, without the warp drives of Star Wars legend, such an idea seems pretty far-fetched. Proxima Centauri b lies 4.2 light years from our home planet. In layman's terms, that's about 25 trillion miles. Yes, with a "t." To put that distance in perspective (as if you needed it), Pluto lies 4.67 billion miles away from Earth. NASA's New Horizons probe took over nine years to travel that distance. Suffice it to say, it would take much, much longer to travel 25 trillion miles.
But, in the perseverant spirit of humanity, some people believe we should still shoot for it. Instead of using traditional rockets, let's use lasers.
The project is called Breakthrough Starshot, a $100 million venture that's trying to reach Proxima Centauri b within the next fifty years. The idea is to use an earth-based array of lasers to slingshot a spacecraft towards the Alpha Centauri star system at about 134 million mph. With that kind of wicked speed, the little probe would arrive at Proxima Centauri in right around 20 years. Good Lord willing and the creek don't rise, as we say in the South.
Take a look at this handy animation showing how such a craft would work:
The concept is rather simple, although the craft shown in the video would likely have some modifications made to it. For instance, it's more feasible for the probe to be spherical, as it would ensure that it doesn't "fall off" the laser like a flat sail would.
Anyway, I'm getting sidetracked. Here's how it would work: the theoretically spherical probe, a few meters in diameter, would be covered in some sort of reflective material. Using what's known as "radiation pressure" from the extreme energy of the lasers, the probe would be propelled to astonishing speeds in outer space. Once reaching Proxima Centauri, the probe would take pictures and measurements from the planet using its onboard sensors. Finally, it would blast data back to earth, where we could analyze it and determine whether alien life could be supported on our extrasolar sibling. (That is, if they don't destroy the probe first!)
Of course, a spacecraft works much better in one's head than it actually does out there in the final frontier. Among the challenges facing Breakthrough Starshot are cost, space debris that the craft may face, how to transmit data back to earth...and the list goes on. But, if Breakthrough Starshot has a, well, breakthrough, there are several other applications for the technology that are intriguing. How about fast-track transportation to Mars? Or shooing away those pesky asteroids that threaten to obliterate us? Now you're talking.
My primary worry, which some of the researchers working on this project agree with, is that we might let some Klingons out there know we exist. A legitimate concern, indeed.
Although, it could also be that the worst kind of extraterrestrials we attract are Porgs. That's not so bad.
I like talking about sci-fi, Star Wars, tech, and outer space every Monday. If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out my other "Real Life Sci-fi" blog posts here.
I'm a sci-fi/fantasy lover & writer who especially likes talking about Star Wars and futuristic tech. I like finding new things & finding the beauty in old things, especially in my "Everyday Snippets" series. I hope you'll join me on my blog and unleash your imagination!