Can we voyage to an alien star?
The early colonists who voyaged here in fragile craft powered only by the wind could not have known what a mighty, complex, and advanced nation would grow from their daring adventures. Just over a century ago, the Wright Brothers, taking turns, powered themselves into the air in a precarious machine they crafted of wood and cloth and wires. They, too, could not possibly have imagined what their early ingenuity would become, with thousands of huge jet airliners routinely winging all around the planet and men walking on the moon and astronauts inhabiting a large orbiting space station where they carry out exotic science experiments.
Such pioneers have explored every realm of our Earth and our solar system. The next quest—the next far horizon—is outer space and the beckoning stars. The nearest one beyond our sun is Proxima Centauri at just over four light years away. Because light travels at 186,000 miles per second, each light year spans six trillion miles, so Proxima Centauri and its orbiting planetary system float 25 trillion miles from us. That’s 25 thousand billion miles—a nearly inconceivable distance.
But there are some space pioneers, like Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb, who believe we can send a robotic probe on a voyage to Proxima Centauri and get back photos and science data from it just 20 years after launch. To do that it will have to accelerate to 20 percent of lightspeed (130 million mph). To achieve that, the craft must be very small to limit its mass and, like those early pioneers, it will rely on sail power, with systems power from an onboard atomic battery charged by radioactive decay. The sail will be pushed not by atmospheric currents, of course, but by laser light, a concept proven by a 2010 Japanese space mission named IKAROS that used photons from the sun to push a sail to 890 mph. Laser light will work even better than sunlight. Russian billionaire Yuri Milner has generously funded research to develop and refine the necessary technology, much of which is already within reach (consider the amazing high-quality photos we get from our tiny smartphone lenses).
The project is called Starshot, and it’s well under way.
Like the early pioneers and the clever Wright Brothers, we probably cannot begin to imagine what wonders Starshot will reveal to us.
Or where in the Universe it will lead us over future generations.
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