Habitable planets & Alpha Centauri

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Seed's Mr. Space Lee Billings has an interesting piece, The Long Shot:

"If planets are found around Alpha Centauri, it's very clear to me what will happen," Marcy said. "NASA will immediately convene a committee of its most thoughtful space propulsion experts, and they'll attempt to ascertain whether they can get a probe there, something scarcely more than a digital camera, at let's say a tenth the speed of light. They'll plan the first-ever mission to the stars."

The premise seems to verge on science fiction. But then much of science could be fiction if it weren't fact. In any case, some perspective:

Alpha Centauri is 136,379 times as far from Earth as Mars is currently.

Mars is 793 times as far from Earth as the Moon is currently.

If New York to Chicago = from Earth to Alpha Centauri, then Earth to the Moon is equivalent to 0.3 millimeters.

Discovering the habitable planets would be the easy part. Waiting for WolframAlpha to become sentient so it could make the trip is the hard part.

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0.1 c? WTF????

There are so many orders of magnitude between our best theoretical propulsion and 30,000 kps that the discussion is meaningless for the forseeable future.

And propulsion is the easy part. Now try to figure out having anything (not anyone, that's insane) survive the trip as more than a 500 kg dinosaur killer.

For that matter, a 30 kps interstellar probe would be a serious challenge on both fronts, and the long transit time (as long or longer than our species has been around) of course has problems of its own. Don't wait for the results, among others.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 20 May 2009 #permalink

Love the Frazetta painting. Apparently John Carter can still say, "I still live!"

Thanks for the link-love, Razib. I really appreciate it!

By Lee Billings (not verified) on 20 May 2009 #permalink

I have to disagree with comment #1. 1/10 c is probably doable for a very small payload even with today's technology though at fierce expense. In fact Project Orion could probably have done it with 1980s technology had it not previously been made impossible due to financial and political considerations.

D. C. Sessions:

0.1c should be doable for a fly-by probe. Project Orion was mentioned here already, but it's also doable with a 'regular' nuclear rocket.

Of course, it's going to be INSANELY expensive.

By Alex Besogonov (not verified) on 21 May 2009 #permalink

after reading this article, i can't help but think...
what if there is advanced organic life on one of the potential planets of Centauri B star , and we send a probe that crashes there :)

In about 50.000 years you'd see a tribal society worshipping a probe sent by us to that system :D

anyway, the fastest probe ever launched up till now was new horizons at a speed of ~57000 km/h , meaning ~960 km/s . at that speed, a probe would reach alpha centauri in roughly 137 years. i don't think that a nasa-made probe could last that long unfortunately. we all know how nasa does things. maybe jaxa would be able to really pull off such a thing, but i doubt it too. the technology probably exists, but the old geezers at top don't want to spend money on something useful. they just want their retirement fund :(

Are you curious? Are you a critic? The great 2 sides of any argument can be summed up in 1 word, NOOBS! 500 years ago the earth was flat and the earth was the center of everything. 100 years ago we learned flight was possible and eventually broke the speed of sound (Remember that?). Then we landed on the moon. I guess thats as far as it goes right? Narrow minded critics always have an incredible lack of memmory and vision. "You cant do that its impossible!" I sure would like to gaze in this crystal ball they have for determining the future. We may make it to some distant place and then we can destroy that environment as well. NOOBS! We all are one.

People have known the world is a sphere for thousands of years, talk about lack of memory. Even Columbus knew the world was round before he ever set sail, probably because he didn't rely on colonialist white mythology for his history lessons.

Alpha Centauri is just another distant shore and, like Columbus, we probably wont even be the first to get there, but we'll sure teach our kids we were.