Alpha Centauri, Here We Come

But it might take a while.

You can’t criticize NASA for failing to plan ahead. It is now in the earliest stages of planning an expedition to our nearest stellar neighbor, Alpha Centauri. The hoped-for launch date is 2069, 51 years from now, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Apollo 11 expedition to the moon.
The moon is about 225,000 miles away. Alpha Centauri is  4.3 light years away. That’s almost 115,000,000 times as far. The fastest a man-made object has ever moved is about 50,000 miles per hour. At that speed, a space probe would need about 58,000 years to get to Alpha Centauri. Obviously, a radically new propulsion system will be needed, and NASA is hoping to develop one that will push the space probe up to 10 percent of the speed of light. Even then it will take 43 years to get there.
In other words, if it launches in 2069, it will roll into the Alpha Centauri system in 2112. We will learn that it got there in 2116, as it will take 4.3 years for the radio signal to get back to earth. Such a propulsion system would radically reduce the time needed to visit solar system objects. It could get a probe to Pluto in a few days instead of the nine and a half years needed for the New Horizons probe to reach Pluto in 2015.
Alpha Centauri, one of the brightest stars in the night sky, is in the southern hemisphere, and you need to be at least in southern Florida to see it. It’s a double star, one with about 1.1 solar masses and the other about .9 solar mass. They are separated by an average distance about equal to the distance between the sun and Saturn, but the orbit is quite elliptical, and an orbit is completed only once in 79 years. They appear as one star to the naked eye, but ordinary binoculars will separate them.
We understand the stars very well already, thanks to earth-bound observations. Or, at least, we think we do. So the value of the expedition would be in exploring the system’s planets and moons assuming it has some. We’re pretty sure already that the smaller star has a planet.
But, at heart, NASA is planning to go to Alpha Centauri for the same reason people climb Mt. Everest: because it’s there and we can. I can’t wait. After all, I’ll only be 125 when it launches and 172 when we get confirmation of success.
18
Shares
Google+ Print

Alpha Centauri, Here We Come

Must-Reads from Magazine

But She Fights

A Trump of their own.

There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”

28
Shares
Google+ Print

Politicians Need Free Speech Too

A lesson from Finland.

High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.

20
Shares
Google+ Print

Planet Earth Dodges a Bullet

Banality and evil.

A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.

5
Shares
Google+ Print

The Unprincipled Boycott of Israel

The demands of the politicized life.

John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.

29
Shares
Google+ Print

The Low, Low Price of Serfdom

Nothing ventured.

Convenience, wrote Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, is a tyrant. It makes our lives easier and more enjoyable, but everything comes with a price tag. We may not recognize that which we are sacrificing in the pursuit of convenience, but we are sacrificing nonetheless.

14
Shares
Google+ Print