Alpha Centauri, here we come!

I know, it is quite cool to explore outer-space. Recently, Stephen Hawking joined hands with a Russian billionaire, Yuri Milner, on a mission to explore our nearest star Alpha Centauri. In recent years, astronomers have predicted the possibility of earth-sized planets orbiting Alpha Centauri B (or β Centauri). In fact, our closest neighbor is a star system The_bright_star_Alpha_Centauri_and_its_surroundings.jpgconsisting of two stars, α Centauri and β Centauri and Proxima Centauri, which may be bound to the binary star system. This would be the first of its kind in the history of mankind. Alpha Centauri is nearly 4.4 Light Years away from the Solar system i.e., we will reach the star in approximately 4 years from now if and only if we travel at the speed of light. It is virtually impossible – with the technology that we now possess – to achieve the speed of light; it would take no less than 30,000 years to reach the star. Voyager 1 might take 70,000 years if it were travelling in that direction.

However, the idea is to launch a nanocraft – the size of a smartphone – into outer-space. Once in orbit, the device will unfold into smaller probes. The probes shall then be propelled by powerful laser beams from the surface of earth. This would accelerate the mother-ship to a fifth of light speed – to about 130 million miles/hour.

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Nanocraft. Courtesy: Reuters

The duo estimated the launch to take place in 20 years from now; 20 years for the ship to reach its destination and 4 more years for the photographs to reach us; results may be well over half a lifetime away! “I think you and I will be happy to see the launch” said Mr. Milner, 54.

Coming to the propellant, the beams have to generate an astounding 100 gigawatts of power within a 2-minute window to propel the probe through space. That’s the energy it takes for a space shuttle to lift off, and about 100 times the power output of a nuclear power plant. It would need an array of one mile with thousands of laser beams working in unison.

Interestingly enough, the advances in nanotechnology and lasers are making circuits smaller and more powerful than ever before. You can fit an entire computer, cameras, and electrical power within a package that weighs less than a gram.

With the project itself costing around $10 billion, Yuri is ready to invest $100 million on R&D; Mark Zuckerberg is one of the three members of the board of directors for the once-in-a-lifetime mission. Both NASA and European Space Agency have been briefed on the project, Dr. Worden said.

The age of terrestrial exploration is over. The age of celestial exploration is about to begin! Nobody knows what this interstellar travel might find out, but it is the single most important event in the history of mankind. Who knows? a new kind of life may well be waiting to be explored.

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