Though NASA, SpaceX, and other space agencies are focused on Mars, a team of forward-thinking scientists are aiming much higher: an inhabited planet outside of our solar system. Our closest star system, Proxima Centauri, is now the focus of an innovative idea called the Swarming Proxima Centauri concept.
NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program has approved the Phase I development of this ambitious project, which was proposed by Space Initiatives Inc. and the Initiative for Interstellar Studies (i4is). The technology can take close-up pictures of Proxima b, the closest exoplanet, and look for evidence of both biological and technological activity, according to Chief Scientist Marshall Eubanks.
The idea uses lasers for propulsion and leverages lightsail technology, as shown by the Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 mission. This combination has the ability to send tiny probes traveling at extremely high speeds to Proxima Centauri in less than 20 years, which would be a huge accomplishment for interstellar travel.
Expanding on the Breakthrough Starshot plan from 2016, which was to deploy one lightsail probe to Proxima Centauri, Eubanks and colleagues have come up with a plan that makes use of a swarm of probes. This raises the chance of successfully taking pictures of Proxima b in addition to improving mission redundancy.
However, such endeavors face significant financial hurdles. Martijn de Sterke, a scientist involved in Breakthrough Starshot, emphasizes the need for substantial funding. Despite the challenges, Eubanks remains optimistic, highlighting the importance of continued research and collaboration across multiple sectors.
The team’s long-term vision extends beyond interstellar travel, foreseeing applications within our own solar system. By first exploring nearby destinations, they aim to refine technology for future interstellar voyages.
Ultimately, the goal is to unlock the mysteries of Proxima Centauri, shedding light on our galactic neighborhood and potentially discovering signs of extraterrestrial life. As Eubanks aptly puts it, “Every large body in our own solar system has surprised us… I am sure the Proxima system will surprise us scientifically as well.” In the quest for knowledge and exploration, the possibilities are limitless.