As scientists look out into other solar systems and even into other galaxies, one of the things they consistently look for is other earth-like planets. Of course while doing this we’re searching for signs of life but we’re also searching for insights into how our own planet was formed and what it takes to support life. However, visiting any of these planets has always been a pipe dream because of the vast distances between us. That is, until recently. Our closest stellar neighbor is a star system called Alpha Centauri. This is star cluster is about 4.3 million light years away from us. This is about 270,000 times the distance that the Earth is from the Sun (about 25 trillion miles) and a project called Breakthrough Starshot is working its way towards it.
Using nanocrafts that can travel at 20% of the speed of light, Breakthrough Starshot is hoping to reach Alpha Centauri in about 20 years. After a 4 year delay, the first readings and insights gathered by these nanocrafts will make their way back to Earth. To illustrate how fast that is, Yuri Milner, the head of Breakthrough Starshot, stated that “If [humanity's fastest-moving spacecraft] Voyager had left our planet when humans first left Africa, travelling at 11 miles a second, it would be arriving at Alpha Centauri just about now." To read more about these nanocraft, check out our blog article about sailing in space!
What we’ve been able to gather about Alpha Centauri without the nanocraft intel dates back to the 1600’s. In 1689 astronomers discovered that one of the brightest stars in the Southern night sky is actually a binary star system. There is an Alpha Centauri A and an Alpha Centauri B and they orbit one another in about the same distance as Uranus orbits the Sun. This proximity makes it difficult for Astronomers to tell what other planets are thrown into the orbital mix as well. However, in 1915 it was discovered that there is a third star in the system, a small red dwarf named Proxima Centauri. And finally, in 2012, it was discovered that there is an Alpha Centauri Bb, a planet about the size of Earth, orbiting Alpha Centauri B.
Breakthrough Starshot has been announced just a year after Yuri Milner’s other project, Breakthrough Listen, was unveiled. This is the largest and most powerful search ever for extra terrestrial life. Over the course of 10 years, Breakthrough Listen will survey 1 million stars closest to us in the Milky Way. It will also search the 100 closest galaxies in the hopes of finding traces of intelligent life. You can visit Breakthroughinitiatives.org for more up to date information about this and all other initiatives, including Breakthrough Starshot.