Alpha Centauri is a beautiful and enigmatic system. Within it, we find our nearest star at a mere 4.37 light years from the Sun. A binary system, or so we believed; maybe still believe.
We start back in 1689 in Puducherry, India. A Jesuit Priest, Jean Richaud was visiting the observatory to view a comet. Instead, he discovered the Alpha Centauri system. Through the telescope back in 1689 he couldn’t see any planets that far out or that close to the stars as they were very bright, but what he did see was Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B. (A big letter after the name indicates a star, if it were a planet it would have the star that it orbits with a small letter to indicate the planet. Ie. Alpha Centauri B b, Alpha Centauri B c, and so on for every planet.)
Fast forward to the early twentieth century. In 1915 the now nearest star at 4.2 light years is found, Proxima Centauri and it revolves around Alpha Centauri A & B once every 500,000 years making it possibly a trinary system. At this time science fiction was beginning to take hold as a genre. Not that no one had ever written a space adventure or fantastical story but it hadn’t really taken hold before as a genre. Now keep in mind, we still were unaware of any planets in the system. These science fiction writers of the day wrote mostly of the solar system, Venus, the Sun, Mercury and Mars but in 1922 an author named George Babcock wrote “YEZAD: A ROMANCE OF HE UNKNOWN” that took place across many locations – one of which was the planet of Alpha Centauri. Fast forward again – this time to 1967 to a writer known as Roddenberry and a show called Star Trek. They too had many episodes about Alpha Centauri yet we still knew little.
Fast forward yet again - this time to Chile in 2007-2008. In Chile there is the most advanced optical telescope in the world called the Very Large Telescope; the VLT. In Chile a bunch of researchers have been exploring Alpha Centauri, locating some planets that orbit Alpha Centauri B and they think they may have discovered something else but just can’t quite see it. They need an upgrade.
Enter Breakthrough Initiatives, a program started by a Russian Venture Capitalist named Yuri Milner.(breakthroughinitiatives.org) Yuri has a dream; a really cool dream. Yuri wants to send a very small spacecraft (like a cube sat) using a very big and powerful laser and push it with the photons of this very big laser so that it goes 1/5th the speed of light. This way it is able to travel to Alpha Centauri in 20 some odd years and not 4.37 light years. Basically it is in the best interests of Yuri that in Chile they are able to discover as much as possible about the Alpha Centauri system. And so Breakthrough Initiatives is funding the upgrade.
A final note: One of the discoveries that the group in Chile at the VLT made was they found a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri. What makes this discovery really exciting is that while three separate planets have been found orbiting Alpha Centauri B, they are close, too close and being too close makes at least one of them a lava planet. This planet that has been found around Proxima Centauri is possible habitable. It exists at the edge of the zone, but the rotation of the planet is such that it should be enough that the planet can protect itself hence protect life. The temperatures are just right for liquid water which is long thought to be a critical ingredient of life. I may disagree as to water being a required ingredient, but I do see that liquid water is a plus. Possibly for exo-life and definitely for us should we go there.
I expect many great discoveries to be made as time progresses and so I expect to update you down the line. When I was in fourth grade I wrote a story about some school children that ended up on Alpha Centauri. I find the system to be quite cool and I also find Yuri’s idea very plausible. I just hope it happens soon as twenty years is a short time compared to 4.37 light years but it is still when compared to the human life.