Scientific Road Trip to Proxima b

Shelby Rogers

proxima_b[Image Courtesy of Business Insider]

Proxima b's relative closeness leaves some cosmologist to wonder if (or when) we could travel there.

And by relative closeness, we mean 25 trillion miles away. It would take four years at light speed to get to Proxima b. The fastest spacecraft available is New Horizons which flew past Pluto at 10 miles per second. It got to Pluto in nine years.

At New Horizons's speed, it would take 80,000 years to reach Proxima b.

newhorizons[Image Courtesy of NASA]

Unfortunately, life is not yet Star Trek or Star Wars. We can't put the Millennium Falcon into hyperdrive. However, some scientists do have suggestions on how to improve the speed of space travel.

One theory is using radioactive matter to fuel the craft. Alpha particles move at a speed 300 times faster than plasma exhaust. However, a steady supply of the source would be needed throughout the entire journey.

One Chinese research team theorizes an alpha-powered ship could reach Proxima Centauri in 4,000 to 9,000 years. While the ship would make it, the crew would obviously not.

In April, philanthropist Yuri Milner and cosmologist Stephen Hawking launched a $100 million plan to make it to Proxima Centauri, the star which Proxima b orbits. The mission, called Breakthrough Starshot, seeks to use lasers to propel tiny "StarChips" into space to collect data. Milner and Hawking hope the tremendously small crafts will travel at one-fifth the speed of light.

“The human story is one of great leaps,” he said. “Today we are preparing for the next great leap – to the stars,” Milner told The Guardian.

Milner hopes Starshot can propel a fleet of nanocrafts to their destination in 25 years' time.

“Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever," Hawking said of the project  Sooner or later we must look to the stars. Breakthrough Starshot is a very exciting first step on that journey.”

Former NASA official Pete Worden said several observatories could play crucial roles in better understanding Proxima b. His team is currently discussing use of Gemini North and Keck observatories in Hawaii, or the Gemini South and Very Large Telescope facilities in Chile.

Worden said spectral imaging could indicate whether Proxima b's atmosphere could sustain life.

“That’s an example of something we can do to determine, is there life on those planets? Do you see signals for water, oxygen, other potential volatiles that indicate life?” Worden told GeekWire in a recent interview. “That’s the kind of discussion we want to do."


For now, Milner and Hawking continue to collaborate with cosmologists, engineers and other scientists from around the world in order to make the impossible possible.

“The limit that confronts us now is the great void between us and the stars. But now we can transcend it, with light beams, light sails, and the lightest spacecraft ever built we can launch a mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation... we commit to this next great leap into the cosmos, because we are human and our nature is to fly," Hawking said.