NASA wants to send a probe to Alpha Centauri in 2069

Shawn Knight

TechSpot Staff
Staff member

Russia may be planning a luxury hotel some 250 miles above Earth but NASA is reportedly considering a destination much further away for one of its future missions.

A group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, is said to be laying the groundwork for a mission that would send a probe to Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to our own solar system. The word “closest” is used loosely here as Alpha Centauri is roughly 4.37 light-years from the Sun.

A light-year is the distance that light travels in a vacuum in one year which equates to roughly 5.9 trillion miles.

NASA's Voyager 1 is the only man-made object to ever leave our solar system. It blasted off from Earth on September 5, 1977, as part of a project to study the outer solar system and is currently around 13 billion miles from the Sun. It still communicates with the Deep Space Network but is expected to go dark by 2025 when it runs out of power.

We’re still decades away from being able to send humans to Mars so you’re probably wondering how NASA intends to send a craft to another star system so far away. The truth is, we don’t really know yet as most of the technology needed to make it happen doesn’t exist yet.

The project – so new that it doesn’t have a name – was presented at the 2017 American Geophysical Union conference in New Orleans on December 12. The mission would launch on or around the 100th anniversary of Apollo 11, the first crewed Moon landing. That’d take place in 2069, giving NASA more than 50 years to figure it all out.

Even if propulsion technology advances to a stage where it could reach 10 percent of the speed of light, it would still take the probe around 44 years to reach its destination – a potentially habitable exoplanet called Proxima Centauri b, or Proxima b for short. Tack on another few years for data from the probe to make its way back to Earth and you’re looking at the year 2118 or so. Needless to say, none of us alive today will be around to soak in the findings. Bummer.

Then again, technology has been advancing at an incredible rate as of late. Just look at what we have today versus what was possible when Apollo 11 launched in 1969. Who knows, we may even get some help with propulsion technology from outside sources.

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TomSEA

TechSpot Chancellor
This is awesome, even though I'll be DEAD before the probe is even launched.

I'm sure they'll incorporate some form of ion thruster engine which has low thrust but takes minimal fuel. The continuous low thrust over this long distance will eventually build up to speeds we've never seen before for a man-made object.
 

seeprime

TS Guru
This is awesome, even though I'll be DEAD before the probe is even launched.

I'm sure they'll incorporate some form of ion thruster engine which has low thrust but takes minimal fuel. The continuous low thrust over this long distance will eventually build up to speeds we've never seen before for a man-made object.
They'll also need to develop ice shielding to repel micro-meteors during the long voyage. This shouldn't be overly difficult with plenty of water in our solar system, comets, to make it practical to build it in space.
 

ShagnWagn

TS Guru
"technology has been advancing at an incredible rate as of late. Just look at what we have today versus what was possible when Apollo 11 launched in 1969"

Advancing where we still have yet to return to the moon. :(

While it's great to dream, this idea should be shelved until we have a valid way of propulsion. No sense putting money towards something that may never be possible. The possibility may be found tomorrow. We just don't know.

I would also like to add it would need some sort of way to slow down. If it doesn't, it will zip by so quick I don't know what kind of useful data could be sent back - at least as far as pictures. The transmitter will also need to be powerful enough to send the data back. Then of course hoping it doesn't hit any space debris along the way. Even a fleck of dust would destroy it at those speeds I would think.
 

Puiu

TS Evangelist
I'm assuming that they plan on using a very efficient solar sail with some sort of laser or magnetic beam transmitter to push it past 10% of the speed of light. (or at least some kind of continuously accelerating propulsion system) It's still very sci-fi.
 
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wiyosaya

TS Evangelist
I'm assuming that they plan on using a very efficient solar sail with some sort of laser or magnetic beam transmitter to push it past 10% of the speed of light. (or at least some kind of continuously accelerating propulsion system) It's still very sci-fi.
Well, it could also be ion engines. The power of any light-based propulsion where the source of light is here on earth would diminish over distance by a factor of the square of that distance. That said, if some initial acceleration could be imparted by a light-based propulsion, the probe should continue at the same speed if nothing gets in its way - since there is no friction in space.

Having an ion engine would possibly mean that the probe could decelerate and enter orbit around one of those distant bodies. Ion engines have already been successfully used on at least one probe - https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/missions/deep-space-1-ds1/

Anyone interested in this type of thing might want to check out the, IMO, excellent series called "Moon Machines". - http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1203167/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1 Literally seat of the pants development of technology that did not exist and sometimes went untested but worked flawlessly to get humanity to the moon.
 
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Urgelt

TS Enthusiast
Lately it has become fashionable for techies and scientists to prefer a micro approach to this mission: miniaturize the hell out of the package so it won't require very much energy to boost to a reasonable speed.

I don't like it. Me, I'd rather put some fusion generators on a good-sized comet. Yeah, we don't yet have fusion, but maybe by fifty years from now, we will, who knows. Choose a comet because it's got volatiles for reaction mass. Pack whatever you want to send along - probes for descending into atmospheres and landing on bodies of water or land, satellites to orbit worlds and collect data, a honking big transmission antenna for sending data to Earth, whatever you decide you'll need. 10% of light speed isn't realistic for a package of this sort; we'd be doing great to get to 1%. So the mission is going to take longer, but you'll be able to do so much more with it than you could with a tiny probe.

One reason it'll take longer, besides a slower transit speed, is this package will have the reaction mass to actually match orbits at the destination. A microprobe accelerated in the Solar System by lasers to 10% of light speed is going to be in the Proxima Centari B system for a *very* short time. It won't have any reaction mass to slow down, won't get particularly close to any planets and won't be in a good position to collect data at all. If we want something more than a quick glimpse, we've got to rendezvous, not just zip by.

My approach will take hundreds of years to deliver good data to Earth. Bummer. But hey, if we humans can't imagine making our civilization last that long, then we've already given up, eh? I don't think we should give up on ourselves; there's a nonzero chance we might keep our civilization intact over the next five hundred years. At least, we ought to be *trying* to do that. In that context, a 500-year mission doesn't sound so awful.
 

Uncle Al

TS Evangelist
Long range planning is always a good idea but before we go exploring we need to get the basics down first and in a dependable fashion. We have mastered space flight including returnable vehicles and we have done the same with an orbiting space station (or sorts). The next logical step would be to put the efforts into some kind of base or facility on the moon and a vehicle that would be able to get there and back without 5 or 6 interchangeable vehicles .... a sort of space plane so to speak. These two accomplishments could take us into the next century and be an excellent launching point for more adventitious flights such as going to Mars and back. I have to believe the folks at NASA have already planned and worked on these two so the only thing holding them back is the necessary political support and popularity with the masses .....
 
Lately it has become fashionable for techies and scientists to prefer a micro approach to this mission: miniaturize the hell out of the package so it won't require very much energy to boost to a reasonable speed.

I don't like it. Me, I'd rather put some fusion generators on a good-sized comet. Yeah, we don't yet have fusion, but maybe by fifty years from now, we will, who knows. Choose a comet because it's got volatiles for reaction mass. Pack whatever you want to send along - probes for descending into atmospheres and landing on bodies of water or land, satellites to orbit worlds and collect data, a honking big transmission antenna for sending data to Earth, whatever you decide you'll need. 10% of light speed isn't realistic for a package of this sort; we'd be doing great to get to 1%. So the mission is going to take longer, but you'll be able to do so much more with it than you could with a tiny probe.

One reason it'll take longer, besides a slower transit speed, is this package will have the reaction mass to actually match orbits at the destination. A microprobe accelerated in the Solar System by lasers to 10% of light speed is going to be in the Proxima Centari B system for a *very* short time. It won't have any reaction mass to slow down, won't get particularly close to any planets and won't be in a good position to collect data at all. If we want something more than a quick glimpse, we've got to rendezvous, not just zip by.

My approach will take hundreds of years to deliver good data to Earth. Bummer. But hey, if we humans can't imagine making our civilization last that long, then we've already given up, eh? I don't think we should give up on ourselves; there's a nonzero chance we might keep our civilization intact over the next five hundred years. At least, we ought to be *trying* to do that. In that context, a 500-year mission doesn't sound so awful.
If they resurrect Project Orion they could have a ship there within 50 years.

I still think that's far too long to be practical. New methods must be developed and until sustainable nuclear fusion becomes a reality I don't think such a mission will be feasible.
 
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Urgelt

TS Enthusiast
Long range planning is always a good idea but before we go exploring we need to get the basics down first and in a dependable fashion. We have mastered space flight including returnable vehicles and we have done the same with an orbiting space station (or sorts). The next logical step would be to put the efforts into some kind of base or facility on the moon and a vehicle that would be able to get there and back without 5 or 6 interchangeable vehicles .... a sort of space plane so to speak. These two accomplishments could take us into the next century and be an excellent launching point for more adventitious flights such as going to Mars and back. I have to believe the folks at NASA have already planned and worked on these two so the only thing holding them back is the necessary political support and popularity with the masses .....
Just to play devil's advocate, I think the development of advanced AI and robotics is far, far more important to our ambitions in space than sending people at this juncture. It's uncomfortable and expensive to sustain people away from Earth, and for what? We'll need successful machines doing the heavy lifting if we're to make it in such hostile environments anyway, so keep humans on Earth and put them to work engineering better generations of AI and robotics. Once machines have built out a sizeable infrastructure, *then* send humans.

In biology there is a concept: biosphere stability. Little biospheres are far more unstable than big ones. Humans can't exist if their biospheres become unstable, so this argues that what we need for successful colonization isn't a little pressurized tent but a big dug-in pressurized city. Machines can build the things. Send people when they're proven stable biospheres.
 
J

Joe Blow

Apollo 11 never made it to the Moon. It was a studio job. That was the same for all the other "Moon landings." Yeah, research it. Total fraud.
 

captaincranky

TechSpot Addict
@Shawn Knight You said: "We’re still decades away from being able to send humans to Mars so you’re probably wondering how NASA intends to send a craft to another star system so far away. The truth is, we don’t really know yet as most of the technology needed to make it happen doesn't exist yet".

But to hear Elon Musk talk about it, you'd think he was going to be leaving for Mars sometime next month.

I'm confused here. Who's right? You, or the gasbag the all the precocious delinquents in Aunt Karen's Kiddie Komputer Klass, fawn over? (That course is listed as "KKK 101")