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Breakthrough Starshot Has A New Target: To Explore Proxima B

Aug 26, 2016 05:23 AM EDT

Breakthrough Starshot may still be in its early stages, but its future is already looking bright.

The latest discovery of a new planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, which is located in the Alpha Centauri star system - the destination of Breakthrough Starshot's exploration initiatives - has given the project a new focus.

Early in August, an anonymous research already hinted at the existence of an Earth-like exoplanet orbiting Proxima Centauri's habitable zone discovered by the European Southern Observatory (ESO). According to the study, which was published in the German weekly magazine called Der Spiegel, the planet could possibly hold liquid water on its surface and is only 4.25 light-years away from Earth.

On Wednesday, ESO confirmed the existence of this exoplanet, which is now called Proxima b. According to scientists, Proxima b is 1.3 times bigger than Earth, and it orbits its star at a distance of about 7 million kilometers, which is about 5 percent of the distance of Earth from the Sun.

"The discovery... provides an obvious target for a flyby mission," Avi Loeb, a physicist at Harvard University and chair of the Starshot mission advisory committee, told Business Insider.

"A spacecraft equipped with a camera and various filters could take color images of the planet and infer whether it is green (harboring life as we know it), blue (with water oceans on its surface) or just brown (dry rock)."

Breakthrough Starshot is a million-dollar research and engineering program led by billionaire Yuri Milner, renowned physicist Stephen Hawking and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. It aims to demonstrate the capabilities of light beams to propel a gram-scale spacecraft or "nanocraft" to 20 percent the speed of light.

The destination of the fly-by mission is the Alpha Centauri, which is the second-closest star system to Earth and the trinary that includes Proxima Centauri (together with Alpha Centauri A and B).

According to Loeb, the powerful lasers or beamers have the potential to launch hundreds of nanocrafts per year.

"This will allow us to send a fleet of probes towards Proxima that could relay the images taken back to Earth more easily (from one spacecraft to the next along the line of sight to Proxima)," Loeb said.

"The curiosity to know more about the planet (most importantly whether it hosts life) will give the Starshot initiative a sense of urgency."

Loeb and his team of scientists are currently working on the challenges the crafts would face on its journey to the stars, including the potential damage from interstellar gas and dust. According to Loeb, other board members are hoping to speed up the timeline to explore Proxima b.

"The lifetime of Proxima is several trillion years, almost a thousand times longer than the remaining lifetime of the sun," Loeb said.

"Hence, a habitable rocky planet around Proxima would be the most natural location to where our civilization could aspire to move after the Sun will die, 5 billion years from now."

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