Sirius is a nearby star that is twice as far as our closest neighbor, yet 16 times as bright. Researchers think that we can get there and study the star within 69 years.
Astronomy has always felt fleetingly futile for me. Despite longing to know more, and yearning for the answer to the fundamental question of whether life exists elsewhere, everything in space is just so unimaginably far away. It might be my generation, or maybe it’s my own distinct lack of patience, but I want the really cool stuff to happen right now. I want probes to leave our solar system, I want drills to dig beneath the icy surface of moons like Enceladus and Europa and I want colonies living and thriving on the surface of Mars. The more I learn though, the more I become disillusioned as it all seems to take so impossibly long to make tangible progress. I’ve often thought that it would take an impossible and miraculous breakthrough with concepts such as faster-than-light travel to get anywhere.
One German scientist, René Heller, at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Gottingen, Germany, thinks that we can get to Sirius in just 69 years. Sirius is not the closest star to Earth, as that title belongs to Alpha Centauri, but it is the brightest. Sirius is in fact, twice as far from our sun as Proxima Centauri, so how could we possibly get there quicker?
The Breakthrough Starshot project achieved headlines recently, when they released detailed plans of a way to send a flotilla of tiny probes at extremely high speeds to reach Alpha Centauri in just 20 years. The creators of the project say that they can use lasers to speed up the sales on these small ships to travel at a fifth of the speed of light. The technology is existing, although would take years to develop into a working prototype. It would get us to our first exoplanet, Proxima B, and answer some important questions that we have about other stars.
This estimate of 20 years involves a flyby. The probes would fly past Alpha Centauri at incredible speeds and take a very quick snapshot of the star. A flyby isn’t very valuable as in order to study the star, we need to slow down and take a closer look at it. René Heller and other independent researchers think that the light from a star can be used to decelerate the spacecraft via the solar powered sails. The math involved told the researchers that such a mission to Alpha Centauri would take around 140 years. The same math told the researchers that Sirius, a star that is twice the distance but 16 times as bright, could speed up and decelerate the sails and get the spacecraft to the planet in just 69 years.
“We need a very light, solid, temperature-resistant, and highly reflective sail material that can span an area of several hundred meters squared. The material could possibly be based on graphene with a metamaterial coating, If this works out, then humanity can really go interstellar.”
Ok so we might not be jetting to other star systems at warp speed anytime soon, and this might take a lifetime to achieve, but it makes me feel a little bit happier knowing that just maybe, we might actually travel to places that are incredibly far away whilst I’m still alive. Until then, we have the James Webb Space Telescope going up next year which should tell us a heap about the universe and how it was created. We can expect a million exoplanet discoveries, each one getting us more excited about the possibility of life outside our solar system and we can expect a ton of unexpected discoveries.