Is Alpha Centauri The Best Place To Look For Aliens?

For generations, human beings have fantasized about the possibility of finding extra-terrestrial life. And with our ongoing research efforts to discover new and exciting extrasolar planets (aka. exoplanets) in distant star systems, the possibility of actually visiting one of these worlds has received a real shot in the arm. Unfortunately, given the astronomical distances involved, not to mention the cost of mounting an expedition, doing so presents numerous significant challenges.

However, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and the Breakthrough Foundation – an international organization committed to exploration and scientific research –  is determined to mount an interstellar mission to Alpha Centauri, our closest stellar neighbor, in the coming years. With the backing of such big name sponsors as Mark Zuckerberg and Stephen Hawking, his latest initiative (named “Project Starshot“) aims to send a tiny spacecraft to the Alpha Centauri system to search for planets and signs of life.

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Will We Ever Reach Another Star?

We hear about discoveries of exoplanets every day. So how long will it take us to find another planet like Earth?

There are two separate parts of your brain I would like to speak with today. First, I want to talk to the part that makes decisions on who to vote for, how much insurance you should put on your car and deals with how not paying taxes sends you to jail. We’ll call this part of your brain “Kevin”.

The rest of your brain can kick back, especially the parts that knows what kind of gas station you prefer, whether Lena Dunham is awesome or “the most awesome”, whether a certain sports team is the winningest, or believes that you can leave a casino with more money than you went in with. We will call this part “Other Kevin”, in honor of Dave Willis.

Okay Kevin, you’re up. I’m going to cut to the gut punch, Kevin. Between you and me, it is my displeasure to inform you that science fiction has ruined “Other Kevin”. Just like comic books have compromised their ability to judge the likelihood of someone acquiring heat vision, science fiction has messed up their sense of scale about interstellar travel.

But you already knew that. Not like “Other Kevin”, you’re the smart one. In the immortal words of Douglas Adams, “space is big”. But when he said that, Douglas was really understating how mind-bogglingly big space really is.

The nearest star is 4 light years away. That means that light, traveling at 300,000 kilometers per second would still need 4 YEARS to reach the nearest star. The fastest spacecraft ever launched by humans would need tens of thousands of years to make that trip.

But science fiction encourages us to think it’s possible. Kirk and Spock zip from world to world with a warp drive violating the Prime Directive right in it’s smug little Roddenberrian face. Han and Chewy can make the Kessel run in only 12 parsecs, which is confusing and requires fan theories to resolve the cognitive space-distance dissonance, and Galactica, The SDF 3, and Guild Navigators all participate in the folding of space.

And science fiction knows everything that’s about to happen, right? Like cellphones. Additionally Kevin, I know what you’re thinking and I’m not going to tear into Lucas on this. It’s too easy, and my ilk do it a little too often. Plus, I’m saving it up for Abrams. Sorry Kevin. Got a little distracted there.

The point is, science fiction is doing colossal hand waving. They’re glossing over key obstacles, like the laws of physics.

Stay with me here.This isn’t like jaywalking bylaws that “probably don’t apply to you at that very moment”, these are the physical laws of the universe that will deliver a complete junk-kicking if you try and pretend they’re not interested in crushing your little atmosphere requiring, century lifespan, conventional propulsion drive dreams.

So let’s say that we wanted to actually send a spacecraft to another star, whilst obeying the laws of physics. We’ll set the bar super low. We’re not talking about massive cruise ships filled with tourists seeking the delights of the super funzone planetoid, Itchy and Scrachylandia Prime.

David Hardy's illustration of the Daedalus Project envisioned by the British Interplanetary Society: a spacecraft to travel to the nearest stars.  (Credit: D. Hardy)
David Hardy’s illustration of the Daedalus Project envisioned by the British Interplanetary Society: a spacecraft to travel to the nearest stars. (Credit: D. Hardy)

I’m not talking about sending a crack team of power armored space marines to defend colonists from xenomorphs, or perhaps take other more thorough measures.

No, I’m talking about getting an operational teeny robotic spacecraft from Earth to Alpha Centauri. The fastest spacecraft we’ve ever launched is New Horizons. It’s currently traveling at 14 kilometres per second. It would take this peppy little probevette 100,000 years to get to the nearest star.

This is mostly due to our lack of reality shattering propulsion. Our best propellant option is an ion engine, used by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. According to much adored Ian “Handsome” O’Neill from Discovery Space, we’d be looking at 19,000 years to get to Alpha Centauri if we used an ion engine and added a gravitational assist from the Sun.

Just think of what we could do with those 81,000 years we’d be saving! I’m going to learn the dulcimer!
We can start shearing back the reality curtain and throw money and resources to chase nearby speculative propulsion tech. Things like antimatter engines, or even dropping nuclear bombs out the back of a spacecraft

The best idea in the hopper is to use solar sails, like the Planetary Society’s Lightsail.
Use the light from the Sun as well as powerful lasers to accelerate the craft.

Ion Propulsion
Ion Propulsion System Test for Deep Space 1. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

But if we’re going to start down that road, we could also send microscopic lightsail spacecraft which are much easier to accelerate. Once these miniprobes reached their target, they could link up and form a communications relay, or even robotic factories.

Sorry, I think that was my “Other Kevin” talking. So where are we at, fo’ reals?

Harold “Sonny” White, a researcher with NASA announced that they’ve been testing out a futuristic technology called an EM drive. They detected a very slight “thrust” in their equipment that might mean it could be possible to maybe push a spacecraft in space without having to expel propellent like a chemical rocket or an ion drive.

What’s that, Kevin? Yes, you should totally be skeptical. You’re right, that last bit was a salad of weasel words.

Even if this crazy drive actually works, it still needs to obey the laws of physics. You couldn’t go faster than the speed of light and you would need a remarkable source of energy to power the reactor. Also, yes, Kevin, you’re right NASA is working on a warp drive. There’s no need to yell.

NASA is also working on an actual warp drive concept known as an alcubierre drive. It would actually do what science fiction has claimed: to warp space to allow faster than light travel. But by working on it, I mean, they’ve done a lot of fancy math.

But once they get all the math done, they can just go build it right? This concept is so theoretical that physicists are still arguing whether powering an alcubierre drive would take more energy than contained within the entire Universe. Which, I think we can call an obstacle.

Oh, one more thing. “Other Kevin”, thanks for being so patient. Here’s your reward. Unicorns are real, and Kevin has been lying to you this whole time. Go get ‘em tiger. Place your bets. When do you think we’ll send our first probe towards another star? Predict the departure date in the comments below.

What is the Smallest Star?

We’ve talked about the biggest stars, but what about the smallest stars? What’s the smallest star you can see with your own eyes, and how small can they get?

Space and astronomy is always flaunting its size issues. Biggest star, hugest nebula, prettiest most talented massive galaxy, most infinite universe, and which comet came out on top in the bikini category. Blah blah blah.

In an effort to balance the scales a little we’re going look at the other end of the spectrum. Today we’re talking small stars. First, I’m going to get the Gary Coleman and Emmanuel Lewis joke out of the way, so we can start talking about adorable little teeny tiny fusion factories.

We get big stars when we’ve got many times the mass of the Sun’s worth of hydrogen in one spot. Unsurprisingly, to get smaller stars we’ll need less hydrogen, but there’s a line we can’t cross where there’s so little, that it won’t generate the temperature and pressure at its core to ignite solar fusion. Then it’s a blob, it’s a mess. It’s clean-up in aisle Andromeda. It’s who didn’t put the lid back on the jar marked H.

So how small can stars get? And what’s the smallest star we know about? In the traditional sense, a star is an object that has enough mass and pressure in its core that it can ignite fusion, crushing atoms of hydrogen into helium.

Fusion is exothermic, releasing energy. It’s this energy that counteracts the force of gravity pulling everything inward. That gives you the size of the star and keeps it from collapsing in on itself.

By some random coincidence and fluke of nature our Sun is exactly 1 solar mass. Actually, that’s not true at all, our shame is that we use our Sun as the measuring stick for other stars. This might be the root of this size business. We’re in an endless star measuring contest, with whose is the most massive and whose has the largest circumference?

So, as it turns out, you can still have fusion reactions within a star if you get all the way down to 7.5% of a solar mass. This is the version you know as a red dwarf. We haven’t had a chance to measure many red dwarf stars, but the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, has about 12.3% the mass of the Sun and measures only 200,000 kilometers across. In other words, the smallest possible red dwarf would only be about 50% larger than Jupiter.

There is an important distinction, this red dwarf star would have about EIGHTY times the mass of Jupiter. I know that sounds crazy, but when you pile on more hydrogen, it doesn’t make the star that much bigger. It only makes it denser as the gravity pulls the star together more and more.

At the time I’m recording this video, this is smallest known star at 9% the mass of the Sun, just a smidge over the smallest theoretical size.

X-Ray image of Proxima Centauri. Image credit: Chandra
X-Ray image of Proxima Centauri. Image credit: Chandra

Proxima Centauri is about 12% of a solar mass, and the closest star to Earth, after the Sun. But it’s much too dim to be seen without a telescope. In fact, no red dwarfs are visible with the unaided eye. The smallest star you can see is 61 Cygni, a binary pair with one star getting only 66% the size of the Sun. It’s only 11.4 light years away, and you can just barely see it in dark skies. After that it’s Spock’s home, Epsilon Eridani, with 74% the size of the Sun, then Alpha Centauri B with 87%, and then the Sun. So, here’s your new nerd party fact. The Sun is the 4th smallest star you can see with your own eyes. All the other stars you can see are much bigger than the Sun. They’re all gigantic terrifying monsters.

And in the end, our Sun is absolutely huge compared to the smallest stars out there. We here like to think of our Sun as perfectly adequate for our needs, it’s ours and all life on Earth is there because of it. It’s exactly the right size for us. So don’t you worry for one second about all those other big stars out there.

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