Our closest stellar neighbour is Proxima Centauri, a small red dwarf star about 4.2 light years away from us. It’s the third member of the Alpha Centauri group, and even though it’s so close, it can’t be seen with the naked eye. In 2016 astronomers discovered a planet orbiting Proxima Centuari, named Proxima Centauri b. That planet was confirmed only a few days ago.
Now, astronomers have confirmed the existence of a second planet, Proxima Centauri c.
In a few decades, the Breakthrough Starshot initiative hopes to send a sailcraft to the neighboring system of Alpha Centauri. Using a lightsail and a directed energy (aka. laser) array, a tiny spacecraft could be accelerated to 20% the speed of light (0.2 c). This would allow Starshot to make the journey to Alpha Centauri and study any exoplanets there in just 20 years, thus fulfilling the dream of interstellar exploration within our lifetimes.
Naturally, this plan presents a number of engineering and logistical challenges, one of which involves the transmission of data back to Earth. In a recent study, Starshot Systems Director Dr. Kevin L.G. Parkin analyzes the possibility of using a laser to transmit data back to Earth. This method, argued Parkin, is the most effective way for humanity to get a glimpse of what lies beyond our Solar System.
The dream of traveling to another star and planting the seed of humanity on a distant planet… It is no exaggeration to say that it has captivated the imaginations of human beings for centuries. With the birth of modern astronomy and the Space Age, scientific proposals have even been made as to how it could be done. But of course, living in a relativistic Universe presents many challenges for which there are no simple solutions.
Of these challenges, one of the greatest has to do with the sheer amount of energy necessary to get humans to another star within their own lifetimes. Hence why some proponents of interstellar travel recommend sending spacecraft that are essentially miniaturized worlds that can accommodate travelers for centuries or longer. These “Generation Ships” (aka. worldships or Interstellar Arks) are spacecraft that are built for the truly long haul.
In the past, the number of known exoplanets has exploded, with 4093 confirmed detections so far (and another 4,727 candidates awaiting confirmation). With the discovery of so many planets that are dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of light years away, a great deal of attention has understandably been directed to our nearest stellar neighbors. Could planets be right next door, with the possibility of life being there as well?
While a potentially-habitable planet was recently discovered around Proxima Centauri (Proxima b), Alpha Centauri remains something of a question mark. But thanks to a recent study from the Georgia Institute of Technology (GIT), we might be getting closer to determining if this neighboring system supports life. In a twist, the study revealed that one of the stars in the binary system is more likely to be habitable than the other.
Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to us, at 4.37 light-years (about 25 trillion miles) away. In 2016, astronomers discovered an exoplanet orbiting one of the three stars in the Alpha Centauri system. Spurred on by that discovery, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) has developed a new instrument to find any other planets that might be in the Alpha Centauri system, and it’s busy looking right now.
On July 14th, 2015, theNew Horizons mission made history when it became the first robotic spacecraft to conduct a flyby of Pluto. On December 31st, 2018, it made history again by being the first spacecraft to rendezvous with a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) – Ultima Thule (2014 MU69). In addition, the Voyager 2probe recently joined its sister probe (Voyager 1) in interstellar space.
Given these accomplishments, it is understandable that proposals for interstellar missions are once again being considered. But what would such a mission entail, and is it even worth it? Kelvin F. Long, the co-founder of the Initiative for Interstellar Studies (i4iS) and a major proponent of interstellar flight, recently published a paper that supports the idea of sending robotic missions to nearby star systems to conduct in-situ reconnaissance.
In April of 2016, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announced the creation of Breakthrough Starshot. As part of his non-profit scientific organization (known as Breakthrough Initiatives), the purpose of Starshot was to design a lightsail nanocraft that would be capable of achieving speeds of up to 20% the speed of light and reaching the nearest star system – Alpha Centauri (aka. Rigel Kentaurus) – within our lifetimes.
At this speed – roughly 60,000 km/s (37,282 mps) – the probe would be able to reach Alpha Centauri in 20 years, where it could then capture images of the star and any planets orbiting it. But according to a recent article by Professor Bing Zhang, an astrophysicist from the University of Nevada, researchers could get all kinds of valuable data from Starshot and similar concepts long before they ever reached their destination.
To recap, Breakthrough Starshot seeks to leverage recent technological developments to mount an interstellar mission that will reach another star within a single generation. The spacecraft would consist of an ultra-light nanocraft and a lightsail, the latter of which would accelerated by a ground-based laser array up to speeds of hundreds of kilometers per second.
Such a system would allow the tiny spacecraft to conduct a flyby mission of Alpha Centauri in about 20 years after it is launched, which could then beam home images of possible planets and other scientific data (such as analysis of magnetic fields). Recently, Breakthrough Starshot held an “industry day” where they submitted a Request For Proposals (RFP) to potential bidders to build the laser sail.
According to Zhang, a lightsail-driven nanocraft traveling at a portion of the speed of light would also be a good way to test Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity. Simply put, this law states that the speed of light in a vacuum is constant, regardless of the inertial reference frame or motion of the source. In short, such a spacecraft would be able to take advantage of the features of Special Relativity and provide a new mode to study astronomy.
Based on Einstein’s theory, different objects in different “rest frames” would have different measures of the lengths of space and time. In this sense, an object moving at relativistic speeds would view distant astronomical objects differently as light emissions from these objects would be distorted. Whereas objects in front of the spacecraft would have the wavelength of their light shortened, objects behind it would have them lengthened.
This phenomenon, known as the “Doppler Effect”, results in light being shifted towards the blue end (“blueshift”) or the red end (“redshift”) of the spectrum for approaching and retreating objects, respectively. In 1929, astronomer Edwin Hubble used redshift measurements to determine that distant galaxies were moving away from our own, thus demonstrating that the Universe was in a state of expansion.
Because of this expansion (known as the Hubble Expansion), much of the light in the Universe is redshifted and only measurable in difficult-to-observe infrared wavelengths. But for a camera moving at relativistic speeds, according to Prof. Zhang, this redshifted light would become bluer since the motion of the camera would counteract the effects of cosmic expansion.
This effect, known as “Doppler boosting”, would cause the faint light from the early Universe to be amplified and allow distant objects to be studied in more detail. In this respect, astronomers would be able to study some of the earliest objects in the known Universe, which would offer more clues as to how it evolved over time. As Prof. Zhang explained to Universe Today via email, this would allow for some unique opportunities to test Special Relativity:
“In the rest frame of the camera, the emission of the objects in the hemisphere of the camera motion is blue-shifted. For bright objects with detailed spectral observations from the ground, one can observe them in flight. By comparing their blue-shifted flux at a specific blue-shifted frequency with the flux of the corresponding (de-blueshifted) frequency on the ground, one can precisely test the Doppler boosting prediction in Special Relativity.”
In addition, the frequency and intensity of light – and also the size of distant objects – would also change as far as the observer was concerned. In this respect, the camera would act as a lens and a wide-field camera, magnifying the amount of light it collects and letting astronomers observe more objects within the same field of view. By comparing the observations collected by the camera to those collected by a camera from the ground, astronomers could also test the probe’s Lorentz Factor.
This factor indicates how time, length, and relativistic mass change for an object while that object is moving, which is another prediction of Special Relativity. Last, but not least, Prof. Zhang indicates that probes traveling at relativistic speeds would not need to be sent to any specific destination in order to conduct these tests. As he explained:
“The concept of “relativistic astronomy” is that one does not really need to send the cameras to specific star systems. No need to aim (e.g. to Alpha Centauri system), no need to decelerate. As long as the signal can be transferred back to earth, one can learn a lot of things. Interesting targets include high-redshift galaxies, active galactic nuclei, gamma-ray bursts, and even electromagnetic counterparts of gravitational waves.”
However, there are some drawbacks to this proposal. For starters, the technology behind Starshot is all about accomplishing the dream of countless generations – i.e. reaching another star system (in this case, Alpha Centauri) – within a single generation.
And as Professor Abraham Loeb – the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University and the Chair and the Breakthrough Starshot Committee – told Universe Today via email, what Prof. Zhang is proposing can be accomplished by other means:
>“Indeed, there are benefits to having a camera move near the speed of light toward faint sources, such as the most distant dwarf galaxies in the early universe. But the cost of launching a camera to the required speed would be far greater than building the next generation of large telescopes which will provide us with a similar sensitivity. Similarly, the goal of testing special relativity can be accomplished at a much lower cost.”
Of course, it will be many years before a project like Starshot can be mounted, and many challenges need to be addressed in the meantime. But it is exciting to know that in meantime, scientific applications can be found for such a mission that go beyond exploration. In a few decades, when the mission begins to make the journey to Alpha Centauri, perhaps it will also be able to conduct tests on Special Relativity and other physical laws while in transit.
At distance of just 4.367 light years, the triple star system of Alpha Centauri (Alpha Centauri A+B and Proxima Centauri) is the closest star system to our own. In 2016, researchers from the European Southern Observatory announced the discovery of Proxima b, a rocky planet located within the star’s habitable zone and the closest exoplanet to our Solar System. However, whether or not Alpha Centauri has any potentially habitable planets remains a mystery.
Between 2012 and 2015, three possible candidates were announced in this system, but follow-up studies cast doubt on their existence. Looking to resolve this mystery, Tom Ayres – a senior research associate and Fellow at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy – conducted a study of Alpha Centauri based on over a decade’s worth of observations, with encouraging results!
The results of this study were presented at the 232rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society, which took place in Denver, Colorado, from June 3rd to June 7th. The study was based on ten years worth of monitoring of Alpha Centauri, which was provided the Chandra X-ray Observatory. This data indicated that any planets that orbit Alpha Centauri A and B are not likely to be bombarded by large amounts of X-ray radiation.
This is good news as far as Alpha Centauri’s potential habitability goes since X-rays and related Space Weather effects are harmful to unprotected life. Not only can high doses of radiation be lethal to living creatures, they can also strip away planetary atmospheres. According to data provided by the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiter, this is precisely what happened to Mars between 4.2 and 3.7 billion years ago.
“Because it is relatively close, the Alpha Centauri system is seen by many as the best candidate to explore for signs of life. The question is, will we find planets in an environment conducive to life as we know it?”
The stars in the Alpha Centauri system (A and B) are quite similar to our Sun and orbit relatively close to each other. Alpha Centauri A, a G2 V (yellow dwarf) star, is the most Sun-like of the two, being 1.1 times the mass and 1.519 times the luminosity of the Sun. Alpha Centauri B is somewhat smaller and cooler, at 0.907 times the Sun’s mass and 0.445 times its visual luminosity.
As such, the odds that the system could support an Earth-like planet are pretty good, especially around Alpha Centauri A. According to the Chandra data, the prospects for life (based on X-ray bombardment) are actually better for any planet orbiting Alpha Centauri A than for the Sun, and Alpha Centauri B is only slightly worse. This is certainly good news for those who are hoping that a potentially habitable exoplanet is found in close proximity to the Solar System.
When the existence of Proxima b was first announced, there was naturally much excitement. Not only did this planet orbit within it’s star’s habitable zone, but it was the closest known exoplanet to Earth. Subsequent studies, however, revealed that Proxima Centauri is variable and unstable by nature, which makes it unlikely that Proxima b could maintain an atmosphere or life on its surface. As Ayers explained:
“This is very good news for Alpha Cen AB in terms of the ability of possible life on any of their planets to survive radiation bouts from the stars. Chandra shows us that life should have a fighting chance on planets around either of these stars.”
Meanwhile, astronomers continue to search for exoplanets around Alpha Centauri A and B, but without success. The problem with this system is the orbit of the pair, which has drawn the two bright stars close together in the sky over the past decade. To help determine if Alpha Centauri was hospitable to life, astronomers began conducting a long-term observation campaign with Chandra in 2005.
As the only X-ray observatory capable of resolving Alpha Centauri A and B during its current close orbital approach, Chandra observed these two main stars every six months for the past thirteen years. These long-term measurements captured a full cycle of increases and decreases in X-ray activity, in much the same way that the Sun has an 11-year sunspot cycle.
What these observations showed was that any planet orbiting within the habitable zone of A would receive (on average) a lower dose of X-rays compared to similar planets around the Sun. For planets orbiting withing the habitable zone of B, the X-ray dose they received would be about five times higher. Meanwhile, planets orbiting within Proxima Centauri’s habitable zone would get an average of 500 times more X-rays, and 50,000 times more during a big flare.
In addition to providing encouraging hints about Alpha Centauri’s possible habitability, the X-ray observations provided by Chandra could also go a long way towards informing astronomers about our Sun’s X-ray activity. Understanding this is key to learning more about space weather and the threat they can pose to human infrastructure, as well as other technologically-advanced civilizations.
In the meantime, astronomers continue to search for exoplanets around Alpha Centauri A and B. Knowing that they have a good chance of supporting life will certainly make any future exploration of this system (like Project Starshot) all the more lucrative!
Some of the study’s results also appeared in the January issue in the Research Notes of the American Astronomical Society, titled “Alpha Centauri Beyond the Crossroads“. And be sure to enjoy this video about Alpha Centauri’s potential habitability, courtesy of the Chandra X-ray Observatory:
At a distance of 4.37 light-years from Earth, Alpha Centauri is the nearest star system to our own. For generations, scientists and speculative thinkers have pondered whether it might have a planetary system like our own Sun, and whether or not life may also exist there. Unfortunately, recent efforts to locate extra-solar planets in this star system have failed, with potential detections later shown to be the result of artifacts in the data.
In response to these failed efforts, several more ambitious projects are being developed to find exoplanets around Alpha Centauri. These include direct-imaging space telescopes like Project Blue and the interstellar mission known as Breakthrough Starshot. But according to a new study led by researchers from Yale University, existing data can be used to determine the probability of planets in this system (and even which kind).
The study which detailed their findings recently appeared in The Astronomical Journal under the title “Planet Detectability in the Alpha Centauri System“. The study was led by Lily Zhao, a graduate student from Yale University and a fellow with the National Science Foundation (NSF), and was co-authored by Debora Fischer, John Brewer and Matt Giguere of Yale and Bárbara Rojas-Ayala of the Universidad Andrés Bello in Chile.
For the sake of their study, Zhao and her team considered why efforts to locate planets within the the closest star system to our own have so far failed. This is surprising when one considers how, statistically speaking, Alpha Centauri is very likely to have a system if its own. As Prof. Fischer indicated in a recent Yale News press release:
“The universe has told us the most common types of planets are small planets, and our study shows these are exactly the ones that are most likely to be orbiting Alpha Centauri A and B… Because Alpha Centauri is so close, it is our first stop outside our solar system. There’s almost certain to be small, rocky planets around Alpha Centauri A and B.”
In addition to being a professor of astronomy at Yale University, Debora Fischer is also one of the leaders of the Yale Exoplanets Group. As an expert in her field, Fischer has devoted decades of her life to researching exoplanets and searching for Earth analogues beyond our Solar System. With partial funding provided by NASA and the National Science Foundation, the team relied on existing data collected by some of the latest exoplanet-hunting instruments.
Using ten years of data collected by these instruments, Zhao and her colleagues then set up a grid system for the Alpha Centauri system. Rather than looking for signs of planets that did exist, they used the data to rule out what types of planets could not exist there. As Zhao told Universe Today via email:
“This study was special in that it used existing data of the Alpha Centauri system not to find planets, but to characterize what planets could not exist. By doing so, it returned more information about the system as a whole and provides guidance for future observations of this uniquely charismatic system.
In addition, the team analyzed the chemical composition of the stars in the Alpha Centauri system to learn more about the kinds of material that would be available to form planets. Based on the different values obtained by observations campaigns conducted by different telescopes on Alpha Centauri’s three stars (Alpha, Beta and Proxima), they were able to place constraints on what kinds of planets could exist there.
“We found that existing data rules out planets in the habitable zone above 53 Earth masses for alpha Centauri A, 8.4 Earth masses for Alpha Centauri B, and 0.47 Earth masses for Proxima Centauri,” said Zhao. “As for the chemical compositions, we found that the ratios of Carbon/Oxygen and Magnesium/Silicon for Alpha Centauri A and B are quite similar to that of the Sun.”
Basically, the results of their study effectively ruled out the possibility of any Jupiter-sized gas giants in the Alpha Centauri system. For Alpha Centauri A, they further found that planets that were less than 50 Earth masses could exist, while Alpha Centauri B might have planets smaller than 8 Earth masses. For Proxima Centauri, which we know to have at least one Earth-like planet, they determined that there might more that are less than half of Earth’s mass.
In addition to offering hope for exoplanet-hunters, this study carries with it some rather interesting implications for planetary habitability. Basically, the presence of rocky planets in the system is encouraging; but with no gas giants, a key ingredient in ensuring that planets remain habitable could be missing.
“[N]ot only could there still be habitable, Earth-mass planets around our closest stellar neighbors, but there also aren’t any gas giants that could endanger the survival of these potentially habitable, rocky planets,” said Zhao. “Furthermore, if these planets do exist, they are likely to have similar compositions to our very own Earth given the similarity in Alpha Cen A/B and our beloved Sun.”
At present, there are no instruments that have been able to confirm the existence of any exoplanets in Alpha Centauri. But as Zhao indicated, her and her teammates are optimistic that future surveys will have the necessary sensitivity to do it:
“[T]his very month has seen the commissioning of several next-generation instruments promising the precision necessary to discover these possible planets in the near future, and this analysis has shown that it is for sure worth it to keep looking!”
“These instruments are promising a precision of down to 10-30 cm/s and should be able to detect many more smaller, and further away planets – such as habitable planets around the Centauri stars,” said Zhao. “The field of view of these two instruments are slightly different (ESPRESSO has the southern hemisphere, where Alpha Centauri is, while EXPRES covers the northern hemisphere, for instance where the Kepler and many of the K2 fields are).”
With new instruments at their disposal, and methods like the one Zhao and her team developed, the closest star system to Earth is sure to become a veritable treasure trove for astronomers and exoplanet-hunters in the coming years. And anything we find there will surely become targets for direct studies by groups like Project Blue and Breakthrough Starshot. If ET resides next door, we’re sure to hear about it soon!
The number of confirmed extra-solar planets has increased by leaps and bounds in recent years. With every new discovery, the question of when we might be able to explore these planets directly naturally arises. There have been several suggestions so far, ranging from laser-sail driven nanocraft that would travel to Alpha Centauri in just 20 years (Breakthrough Starshot) to slower-moving microcraft equipped with a gene laboratories (The Genesis Project).
But when it comes to braking these craft so that they can slow down and study distant stars and orbit planets, things become a bit more complicated. According to a recent study by the very man who conceived of The Genesis Project – Professor Claudius Gros of the Institute for Theoretical Physics Goethe University Frankfurt – special sails that rely on superconductors to generate magnetic fields could be used for just this purpose.
Starshot and Genesis are similar in that both concepts seek to leverage recent advancements in miniaturization. Today, engineers are able to create sensors, thrusters and cameras that are capable of carrying out computations and other functions, but are a fraction of the size of older instruments. And when it comes to propulsion, there are many options, ranging from conventional rockets and ion drives to laser-driven light sails.
Slowing an interstellar mission down, however, has remained a more significant challenge because such a craft cannot be fitted with braking thrusters and fuel without increasing its weight. To address this, Professor Gros suggests using magnetic sails, which would present numerous advantages over other available methods. As Prof. Gros explained to Universe Today via email:
“Classically, you would equip the spacecraft with rocket engines. Normal rocket engines, as we are using them for launching satellites, can change the velocity only by 5-15 km/s. And even that only when using several stages. That is not enough to slow down a craft flying at 1000 km/s (0.3% c) or 100000 km/s (c/3). Fusion or antimatter drives would help a bit, but not substantially.”
The sail he envisions would consist of a massive superconducting loop that measures about 50 kilometers in diameter, which would create a magnetic field once a lossless current was induced. Once activated, the ionized hydrogen in the interstellar medium would be reflected off the sail’s magnetic field. This would have the effect of transferring the spacecraft’s momentum to the interstellar gas, gradually slowing it down.
According to Gros’ calculations, this would work for slow-travelling sails despite the extremely low particle density of interstellar space, which works out to 0.005 to 0.1 particles per cubic centimeter. “A magnetic sail trades energy consumption with time,” said Gros.”If you turn off the engine of your car and let it roll idle, it will slow down due to friction (air, tires). The magnetic sail does the same, where the friction comes from the interstellar gas.”
One of the advantages of this method is the fact that can be built using existing technology. The key technology behind the magnetic sail is a Biot Savart loop which, when paired with the same kind of superconducting coils used in high-energy physics, would create a powerful magnetic field. Using such a sail, even heavier spacecraft – those that weight up to 1,500 kilograms (1.5 metric tonnes; 3,307 lbs) – could be decelerated from an interstellar voyage.
The one big drawback is the time such a mission would take. Based on Gros’ own calculations, a high speed transit to Proxima Centauri that relied on magnetic momentum braking would require a ship that weighed about 1 million kg (1000 metric tonnes; 1102 tons). However, an interstellar mission involving a 1.5 metric tonne ship would be able to reach TRAPPIST-1 in about 12,000 years. As Gros concludes:
“It takes a long time (because the very low density of the interstellar media). That is bad if you want to see a return (scientific data, exciting pictures) in your lifetime. Magnetic sails work, but only when you are happy to take the (very) long perspective.”
In other words, such a system would not work for a nanocraft like that envisioned by Breakthrough Starshot. As Starshot’s own Dr. Abraham Loeb explained, the main goal of the project is to achieve the dream of interstellar travel within a generation of the ship’s departure. In addition to being the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University, Dr. Loeb is also the Chair of the Breakthrough Starshot Advisory Committee.
As he explained to Universe Today via email:
“[Gros] concludes that breaking on the interstellar gas is feasible only at low speeds (less than a fraction of a percent of the speed of light) and even then one needs a sail that is tens of miles wide, weighting tons. The problem is that with such a low speed, the journey to the nearest stars will take over a thousand years.
“The Breakthrough Starshot initiative aims to launch a spacecraft at a fifth of the speed of light so that it will reach the nearest stars within a human lifetime. It is difficult to get people excited about a journey whose completion will not be witnessed by them. But there is a caveat. If the longevity of people could be extended to millennia by genetic engineering, then designs of the type considered by Gros would certainly be more appealing.”
But for missions like The Genesis Project, which Gros originally proposed in 2016, time is not a factor. Such a probe, which would carry single-celled organisms – either encoded in a gene factory or stored as cryogenically-frozen spores – a could take thousands of years to reach a neighboring star system. Once there, it would begin seeding planets that had been identified as “transiently habitable” with single-celled organisms.
For such a mission, travel time is not the all-important factor. What matters is the ability to slow down and establish orbit around a planet. That way, the spacecraft would be able to seed these nearby worlds with terrestrial organisms, which could have the effect of slowly terraforming it in advance of human explorers or settlers.
Given how long it would take for humans to reach even the nearest extra-solar planets, a mission that last a few hundred or a few thousand years is no big deal. In the end, which method we choose to conduct interstellar mission will come down to how much time we’re willing to invest. For the sake of exploration, expedience is the key factor, which means lightweight craft and incredibly high speeds.
But where long-term goals – such as seeding other worlds with life and even terraforming them for human settlement – are concerned, the slow and steady approach is best. One thing is for sure: when these types of missions move from the concept stage to realization, it sure will be exciting to witness!