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NASA is planning the first interstellar mission, a trip to the Alpha Centauri system

By
Brooks Hays
Centauri A and B make up two of the three stars in the Alpha Centauri system, Earth's closest stellar neighbor. Photo by NASA
Centauri A and B make up two of the three stars in the Alpha Centauri system, Earth's closest stellar neighbor. Photo by NASA

Dec. 28 (UPI) -- Scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory are making preliminary plans for an interstellar mission, the agency's first. The team wants to send a probe to look for sings of life on the exoplanets surrounding Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to Earth.

According to New Scientist, which first revealed the news, the proposed launch is set for 2069 -- a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

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With a 44-year-long flight, the probe wouldn't reach its target until the next century.

"It's very nebulous," Anthony Freeman, a researcher at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, told the audience last week at the 2017 American Geophysical Union conference.

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Freeman said the mission's planning is in the earliest stages, but scientists aren't without ideas -- and a few specifics.

Scientists are working on the kinds of technology that would allow a probe to travel at 10 percent of the speed of light. Researchers are considering laser-powered probes, as well as nuclear propulsion, sail power and thrust derived from collisions between antimatter and matter.

Even at 10 percent of the speed of light, it would still take nearly a half-century to reach the star system, which lies 4.37 light years from our solar system. That leaves plenty of time for problems to arise.

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Should the mission come to fruition, adaptability will be key.

"We don't know whether the mission objectives will be stable," Freeman told the website Futurism. "We would find out a lot while the spacecraft is en route, which will change the questions that we need to answer before it arrives at its destination. All this makes it hard to pin down exactly what the mission concept should look like -- hence my comment that it is nebulous."

Alpha Centauri is a three-star system. Astronomers have discovered three exoplanets in the system, including a rocky planet in the habitable zone. Researchers believe there are likely several more undiscovered exoplanets in the habitable zone.

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