Alpha Centauri is one of our closest stellar neighbors at just 4.22 light years away, and astronomers think there’s an exoplanet orbiting the host star with the potential to support life.
To date, humankind has never sent any spacecraft to another stellar system, but astronomers hope to change that in the future, perhaps starting with Alpha Centauri.
Modern spacecraft propulsion systems are much too slow to send a probe to Alpha Centauri in a single lifetime, but light sail technology promises to change that. Breakthrough Starshot is one such initiative, and it involves sending a tiny probe to Alpha Centauri at 20% of the speed of light with light sails and lasers.
The idea here is that shining a powerful laser beam at the light sail will generate thrust as the charged particles bombard the light sail. More importantly, the probe would be so lightweight that it would pick up speed very quickly.
There’s a long way to go to get to Alpha Centauri, and astronomers have no idea what obstacles reside between our nearest stellar neighbor and us. For that reason, the plan would be to fire off several of these tiny probes at once to increase our odds of at least one probe arriving at its destination safely.
Will it work? No one knows; but we’ll never find out unless we try, which is why brilliant minds are already looking into ways to make Breakthrough Starshot a reality.