Renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner teamed up in April for an ambitious plan to send interstellar probes to a nearby star system for the first time in around 20 to 30 years.
Back then, Milner pledged approximately $100 million toward the "Breakthrough Starshot" project, which aims to propel tiny spaceships to 20 percent the speed of light with a laser propulsion system. The nanospaceships will be sent to Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to our solar system at 4.37 light-years away.
Now, the discovery of an Earth-like and possibly habitable exoplanet located in Alpha Centauri may prompt the Breakthrough Starshot team to tweak their plans.
On Wednesday, Aug. 24, scientists from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and Harvard University announced the discovery of exoplanet Proxima b, the closest exoplanet ever detected.
Proxima b revolves around a red dwarf star in the Alpha Centauri known as Proxima Centauri, which is also considered the smallest star in its star system, according to astronomers.
Abraham Loeb, committee chair of the Starshot mission advisory, said Proxima b has given them a new target for their spacecraft.
“The discovery is likely to energize the project," Loeb, also a physicist at Harvard, told CNET. "It provides an obvious target for a flyby mission."
Loeb said should they send a spacecraft to Proxima b, it would be equipped with a camera and several filters that could take color images. The camera could infer whether the planet is green and harbors life; blue and contains water oceans; or just brown and contains dry rock.
The Breakthrough Starshot team hopes to conduct a launch in two or three decades and reach Proxima Centauri in 20 years. The photos taken by the tiny probes would arrive on Earth 4.23 years later - the distance in light-years from Earth to Proxima b.
With that in mind, Loeb and colleagues think their nanoprobes, which will be named StarChips, could take photos of Proxima b by 2060. Each StarChip would be built out of a silicon wafer that carries cameras, power supply, photon thrusters, communication equipment and navigation, the team said.
Tiny space probes are more ideal to travel to star systems like the Alpha Centauri because a traditional spacecraft would take 20,000 years to reach it. But probes such as the StarChips can make the journey in just 20 years, researchers added.
Meanwhile, before scientists can make this plan a reality, they have to solve several "overarching problems" first.
Breakthrough Starshot developers say much of the plan is still theoretical at this point. The laser propulsion system still requires a proof of concept, with about five to 10 years of study dedicated to investigating whether the lasers will work.