NASA Reveals 2069 Interstellar Mission to Alpha Centauri

NASA has revealed plans to send a probe to Alpha Centauri by 2069. The announcement was made at the 2017 American Geophysical Union conference in New Orleans by Anthony Freeman of the Innovation Foundry at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

The agency’s push towards interstellar travel comes as a result of the Commerce, Justice, Science, And Related Agencies Appropriations Bill, 2017. Under the heading, “Interstellar propulsion research” (page 60), the bill outlines a request to begin the development of a craft capable of achieving velocities of at least one-tenth the speed of light (0.1c). The bill continues to describe that at velocities of 0.1c, the craft would enable humankind to begin exploring the nearest star system from Earth, Alpha Centauri. Additionally, the bill targeted the 2069 launch deadline to commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary of 1969 Apollo moon landing.

The goal is ambitious and JPL staff on the Alpha Centauri 2069 team admit that the technology they need doesn’t exist yet. The fastest spacecraft launched to date, the NASA-Germany Helios probe is capable of velocities of approximately 250,000 kph (155,000 mph). At that speed, a probe would take at least 18,000 years to reach Alpha Centauri.

Although still in theoretical stages of development, NASA and other agencies are currently developing a number of propulsion systems that could achieve the required velocity of 0.1c. The potential propulsion systems include the Bussard interstellar ramjet and antimatter-catalyzed fusion drives. NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program has also identified the possibility of using wafer-sized spacecraft attached to solar sails. Using this approach, the spacecraft could reach velocities exceeding 0.1c.

The primary goal of the Alpha Centauri 2069 probe will be to determine whether life is present. To do this, the probe will scan for large-scale land modification and artificial structures and lighting. Additional mission goals drafted by JPL include examining the composition of radiation the probe encounters and testing general relativity.

Currently, only one human-made spacecraft has ever ventured outside our solar system, Voyager 1. The spacecraft is currently 13 billion miles from Earth traveling at 250,000 kph (155,000 mph), less than 1 percent of 1 percent of the speed of light. Voyager 1 will soon be joined outside our solar system by Voyager 2 which is set to achieve the milestone within the next few years.

Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Andrew Parsonson is a space enthusiast and the founder of Rocket Rundown. He has worked as a journalist and blogger for various industries for over 5 years and has a passion for both fictional and real-life space travel. Currently, Andrew is the primary writer for Rocket Rundown as we look to expand our reach and credibility.