Do Aliens Live at Alpha Centauri? NASA Wants to Send a Mission in 2069 to Find Out

Alpha Centauri A (left) and B (right). ESA/NASA

In 2069, if all goes according to plan, NASA could launch a spacecraft bound to escape our solar system and visit our next-door neighbors in space, the three-star Alpha Centauri system, according to a mission concept presented last week at the annual conference of the American Geophysical Union and reported by New Scientist. The mission, which is pegged to the 100th anniversary of the moon landing, would also involve traveling at one-tenth the speed of light.

This isn't the first time the idea of visiting Alpha Centauri at that speed and on that timeline has been suggested. Last year, House of Representatives subcommittees considered a bill suggesting a mission to Alpha Centauri, although that text never made it into an approved law. But NASA is still hopping on board with the idea, with a probe that might be able to spot alien life.

We already know there's at least one planet in the neighborhood, Proxima b. And scientists suspect there may still be more planets about the size of Earth in the neighborhood left to find.

Right now, only one human-made spacecraft has left our solar system—Voyager 1, which launched 40 years ago and is currently traveling at about 38,000 miles per hour, less than 1 percent of 1 percent of the speed of light.

But the Voyager missions were designed to explore our solar system; it's only a nice fringe benefit that they continue work. The twin spacecraft were also designed using the level of technology found in a car's remote key. A modern mission to Alpha Centauri would be designed with very different goals in mind, and would take advantage of a host of new technology.

Read more: Alpha Centauri: The Sun Nearest to Ours Could Be Hiding Planets Like Earth

Of course, that technology has yet to be developed. A non-governmental group, the Breakthrough Starshot mission, is also targeting the Alpha Centauri system and envisions sending tiny probes, potentially carrying microscopic organisms, that are pushed by high-powered lasers at about a quarter of the speed of light. NASA is considering the same technique, as well as harnessing nuclear techniques or collisions between matter and antimatter, New Scientist reports.

The NASA mission would have a second component as well, following up the probe with a space telescope that could take other data about the system without needing to quite reach it. And that's good news, since while the three stars in the Alpha Centauri system are the closest to us, they're still not exactly conveniently close. At about 4.4 light-years away and traveling at one-tenth of the speed of light, a spacecraft could theoretically reach it in a breezy 44 years. And in order to take a closer look, it may need to fall into orbit, a delicate maneuver that could add decades to the excursion.