(Originally posted 1/13/17 on Read With The Gringa)
The gringa feels rather certain than my dear readers have heard of Alpha Centauri. Not just in the scientific, astronomical sense. But think of all the things you might be familiar with that are linked to Alpha Centauri:
- The Twilight Zone feature, 1963, “Probe 7, Over and Out”
- “Ikarie XB-1”, a 1963 Czechoslovakian film
- Lost in Space, a television series of 1965-1968, about space colonists who get lost on their way to colonize Alpha Centauri
- Star Trek: The Original Series episode, “Tomorrow is Yesterday”, aired 1967 and featured little green aliens of Alpha Centauri
- “Cosmic Songs”, a 1878 poetic work by Jan Neruda
- Around the Universe, 1923 fiction penned by Ray Cummings
And the list of creative reference to Alpha Centauri can go on and on. Today there are children’s toys, video games and models of extra-terrestrial spacecraft, all featuring Alpha Centauri in their branding. Why is Alpha Centauri so popular? Is there a reason for all the fuss by artists and retailers? Is there really something to Alpha Centauri?
Stephen Hawking thinks so. He wants to spend about $100 million on a mission to Alpha Centauri. Many astronomers have devoted their professional lives to the study of Alpha Centauri. SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) has space telescope technology solely committed to monitoring Alpha Centauri. UFOlogists believe ETs from Alpha Centauri already walk among us. Experts at NASA, believe that if ETs do exist, our best chance at finding them lies in the Alpha Centauri system. But why? And is there really any chance of a manned mission to another star system?
Alpha Centauri is more than 4.3 light years away. In real mileage, that is 25 trillion miles. If Stephen Hawking gets the spacecraft of his dreams, it would take 20 years for it to reach its destination. Even then, it wouldn’t be a manned spacecraft. Instead it would be programmed to release a drone that would search for ancient or existing civilizations.
You see, there are 3 particular stars in this system that create what is called the “Goldilocks Zone”. Despite there being 3 stars to this system, it is commonly referred to as a binary star system because two stars are dominant while they third is a lowly red dwarf. By creating a “Goldilocks Zone”, conditions are expected to be favorable on some of the orbiting planets for supporting life as we know it.
Hawking calls his mission “Starshot”. Work is already underway at its New York headquarters at One World Observatory. But Hawking is not alone in his obsession to explore Alpha Centauri.
NASA has already been receiving imaging of Alpha Centauri from the Hubble Space Telescope. Located in The Centaur (constellation Centaurus), the system is dominated by twin stars. So, to say Alpha Centauri is not really an accurate description. You see, there is Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B. And there is also a red dwarf star, Alpha Centauri C, which is called Proxima Centauri. When scientists say “Alpha Centauri”, they are referring to this system which has planets circling all three stars. And NASA has some awesome images, not just of the stars, but also of the planetary objects that live out their lives in paths encircling them.
Interestingly enough, despite the dominance of Alpha Centauri A and B, it is actually Proxima Centauri, the relatively obscure red dwarf star, that has scientists the most excited. You see, in August of 2016, astronomers with the European space agencies discovered an Earth-sized planet in the sweet spot, called the habitable zone, orbiting Proxima Centauri.
If finding out what secrets Alpha Centauri holds is highly titillating, take heart. Although it is improbable that you will be invited to join Hawking’s team and unlikely that NASA will list you on their own missions, there is a citizen scientist group who is open to using your talents, whatever they may be.
Project Blue, a tongue-in-cheek honorary reference to Carl Sagan’s nickname for Earth, is on a mission. They want to be the first to photograph this Earth-like planet in Alpha Centauri. They plan to launch a space telescope by the end of the decade through a collaborative effort of universities, private industry, research organizations, space exploration professionals and the average citizen. If you have something to offer, Project Blue wants you to participate.
This year the project enters the preliminary design phase. Next year, design will be finalized and fabrication will begin. By 2019 mission objectives are to complete construction and launch. The next three years will be filled with managing the operations of the telescope as it makes its way to Alpha Centauri.
How might the gringa’s dear readers help out in such an exciting undertaking? Well, you could contact them and ask them yourselves. You might follow them on Facebook or Twitter. Or, sign up for mission updates. If you are one who likes to assist from the shadows, donations are always accepted. Whatever you do, the gringa simply wants you to reach for the stars, fulfill your potential and live your dreams!
Image Credit: NASA