Back in April, Stephen Hawking and billionaire space enthusiast Yuri Milner announced an ambitious long-term program: Breakthrough Starshot. The venture aims to send small, postage-stamp sized probes outfitted with sails out to the Alpha Centauri star system in around 20-30 years.
Meanwhile, an international team of researchers have discovered Proxima b, an exoplanet right on our doorstep—it orbits Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf that is also the smallest star in the Alpha Centauri star system. The planet's proximity to Earth and the possibility it may harbor life have stirred many astronomers and (of course) mainstream media.
This galvanized the team at Breakthrough Starshot, giving them an all new target for their spacecraft. "The discovery is likely to energize the project...It provides an obvious target for a flyby mission," says Starshot mission advisory committee chair Abraham Loeb in an email to CNET.
The probes sent by Starshot would be taking color photos of the planet that would determine whether the planet is green with life, blue with water, or just brown due to dry rock. In such a case, these photos would actually reach Earth after 4.24 years, possibly by 2060. Mass measurements, magnetic field measurements, and other data could also be gathered by the Starshot probes.
But the overarching challenge is that much of the plan is theoretical at this point. Even the laser propulsion system still needs a proof of concept. Five to ten years of study will actually be conducted just to see whether the laser will work.
In addition, the long time span of the project makes predicting the instruments the probe will carry difficult. Will they gather rudimentary measurements and pictures, or will miniaturization mature enough to make comprehensive analysis of Proxima b possible?
Only time will tell.