It could be argued that the biggest challenge NASA has faced since its very inception isn’t the treacherous nature of space travel, nor is it dealing with the unknown; the biggest hurdle America’s space program has always needed to overcome is distance. Space is huge, with expanses between celestial bodies within our own solar system so large that one could struggle to comprehend them, and the distances to anything beyond them so vast that it took Voyager 1 around four decades to simply reach the end of our solar system traveling at more than 38,000 miles per hour (about 35 times faster than an average bullet).

If distance truly is NASA’s nemesis, then rumor has it that they’re already planning to take on their greatest challenge ever: sending an unmanned space craft to another solar system: Alpha Centauri. Of course, such a daunting mission will take time to mount, but NASA’s tentative time-table may still be surprising (or disappointing) if you were hoping to see it happen in your lifetime.

According to a report in New Scientist, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has begun the early planning stages for a mission that hopes to cover the 4.4 light year distance between us and our closest star system neighbor, but don’t get your hopes up quite yet. According to JPL, mankind’s first mission with an interstellar destination won’t take to the skies until 2069, more than 50 years from now.

The closest star system to the Earth is the famous Alpha Centauri group. (NASA)

The biggest reason for that far out timetable?  The level of technology currently available to us. While 4.4 light years may not sound like much, breaking that distance down into more comprehendable units of measurement can help to appreciate just how massive this undertaking promises to be. One light year is approximately 5,878,625,373,183.6 miles, so Alpha Centauri is right in the neighborhood of 24 trillion miles away. Now might be a good time to revisit those Voyager numbers – seeing as it’s only covered about 13 billion miles in the past 40 years. Plug those numbers into the sort of calculator that can handle a whole lot of zeroes and you’ll find that it would take Voyager, which is just about as quick a ship as we’re able to build right now, around 78,000 years to reach Alpha Centauri.

NASA hopes to cut that time down considerably using propulsion methods developed in the next half-century. Their aim is to find a way to accelerate their probe up to around one tenth the speed of light, allowing it to cover that 4.4 light year distance in just about 44 years.

That means that, even with advanced propulsion methods not yet developed, any of us who might live long enough to see the launch of an Alpha Centauri probe would still never live to see it arrive at its destination. Of course, even once it got there, it would still take a whopping 4.4 years for it transmit a single message back to us, and another 4.4 for us to transmit back. That means if NASA sent a command for their probe to take a picture of the potentially habitable exoplanet Proxima B, we’d need to wait just about a decade to receive the image.

There’s no way to know if NASA can successfully develop the ability to mount such a massive undertaking, but there’s no reason to suspect that it’s impossible. Like all things involving space travel, possible is almost always just a matter of time, effort, and most of all, funding.

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As for that 2069 year in particular – it was chosen for another reason too. NASA hopes to launch this mission on the 100th anniversary of Apollo 11: a fitting tribute to mankind’s greatest space accomplishment to date.


Image courtesy of NASA