So you are all stoked about the news this past week about the discovery of a planet, Proxima b, in the habitable zone of our neighboring star, Proxima Centari, and wondering whether you can actually visit this second Earth. Well on the Space Shuttle it would take 163,000 years so no… but how far off are the up and coming technologies from achieving interstellar travel? Hint: There is one that promises to get you there within a couple decades. LET’S DIVE IN!
Using ion propulsion, like many of your favorite Science Fiction spaceships will get you there in a dismal 81,300 years.
Using a flyby, like New Horizons and many other deep space probes use, you could reach a speed that would get you there by 55,800 years…. still not great
Using nuclear thermal propulsion, which was investigated for shortening the trip to Mars, you will get you there in 1,000 years…. so now at least your near descendants will get to walk the surface of Proxima b.*
Using nuclear fusion, aka Project Daedalus, it would take you about 36 years to reach the planet: WITHIN YOUR LIFETIME!*
Now, if you are not intent on personally reaching the planet but intent on sending a computer there, I have some really good news. Back in April of this year, Yuri Milner announced that he was investing in a program to send a nano sat to Alpha Centari system (home to Proxima Centari and Proxima b) using a large laser and a sail. This would take between 20-25 years.
Although it can be discouraging that some of these technologies are in the very early stages of development, you should take note that space travel has been around for only a matter of decades and we are at the very beginning of breakthroughs in the technology. Who knows… in a decade, we might have stumbled upon something better that would put traveling to and from Proxima b in the realm of possibility.
*These technologies are not ready to be implemented but they are some ideas that NASA has entertained in the past.