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Research by Cal Poly and UCSB professors part of plan to visit neighboring solar system

Skatebiker at English Wikipedia
The two bright stars are (left) Alpha Centauri and (right) Beta Centauri. The faint red star in the center of the red circle is Proxima Centauri.

There is a plan in the works to visit Alpha Centauri, the nearest star beyond our own Sun. It's a journey of some 25 trillion miles. 

The plan by Astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner was featured on NPR's Morning Edition on Wednesday.  

The Alpha Centauri star system is so far away that it would take thousands of years to get there with equipment we currently use for space travel. So, this team wants to use a technology being developed locally called a light sail.

UCSB Physicist Phillip Lubin and Cal Poly Statistician Gary Hughes are pioneers in the technology.

The approach would use an Earth-based laser beam to propel small silicon wafers attached to sails toward Alpha Centauri at a fifth the speed of light.

Gary Hughes says the approach could be used for any number of space missions, including the monumental one announced this week.

"You know if we want to study things in the outer solar system, it really takes a long time and a very complicated mission,' said Hughes. "With these smaller spacecraft, we could catch up and pass Voyager in a week."

The Voyager spacecraft Hughes refers to was launched nearly 30 years ago and has just reached an area of space beyond the influence of our sun.

Hughes said Wednesday that a laser could also be used to send information back to Earth once the space chips complete with mini cameras get to the Alpha Centauri solar system.

Hughes and Lubin just finished a NASA Phase I concepts grant (NIAC) this year to study this very topic. It was called "Deep In."

The team is hoping NASA will fund a Phase II of the project based on their Phase I report.