Traveling to a Planet Orbiting Another Star

Proxima Centauri imaged by Hubble (photo from NASA) 

Proxima Centauri imaged by Hubble (photo from NASA) 

This month Sky & Telescope published a couple of articles that when combined pretty much blew my mind. The first news story was about the initial discovery of a planet orbiting the star Proxima Centauri. Proxima Centauri is the small red M dwarf star and is the nearest star to our solar system. This new world has been named Proxima Centauri b, has a mass of at least 1.3 times that of Earth and is thought to be a rocky planet. Its orbit is also within the so called "habitable zone" of the star, meaning that theoretically the temperature ranges on the planet's surface could support liquid water (which is widely accepted as something that is needed to support life).

Ok, so that's cool right? Maybe this planet orbiting a star a really long way away from us could support life or even have life currently living on the surface. But what if we could directly image this planet and its atmosphere? Yeah, that may actually be possible here in the next several years. The ESPRESSO spectrograph at the ESO's Very Large Telescope facility in Chile will be operational in 2017 and may just have the capability of determining the composition of Proxima Centauri b's atmosphere.

Just when you thought things couldn't any more futuristic and Sci-Fi crazy...what if I told you it might be possible to travel to this star system and this possible life-harboring planet? Not only is it theoretically possible to send a very small spacecraft there, but it is actively being developed. This Popular Science article talks about a project originally funded by Kickstarter that is beginning to develop an extremely small (just 1 or 2 gram) spacecraft that could potentially harness the power of the Sun and accelerate up to 20% of the speed of light. That would reduce the travel time to Proxima Centauri to just 20 years.

If you put all of this together then we will soon be able to directly image the atmosphere of a planet orbiting a very nearby star that has the potential for alien life and then send a very small probe within our lifetimes to investigate. It wasn't too long ago that we weren't even sure there were other planets beyond our solar system out there. We really do live in the future...

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