A third planet, as large as 26% of the mass of Earth, has been discovered orbiting our nearest stellar neighbor, Proxima Centauri .Astronomer João Faria and his collaborators detected Proxima Centauri d using the Echelle Spectrograph for Rocky Exoplanets and Stable Spectroscopic Observations.
It would be exciting to send a spacecraft to enter the Alpha-Centauri system and orbit this planet. At Princeton Satellite System we’ve looked at interstellar flight using the Direct Fusion Drive nuclear fusion propulsion system.
Interstellar Fusion Propulsion
At the 2021 Breakthrough Energy Conference we presented findings for both flyby and orbital missions. Flyby missions are easier, but orbit entry would allow detailed study of the planet. A flyby gets your spacecraft close, but it is moving really fast!
The following charts give an outline of our talk. The first shows the optimal exhaust velocity based on sigma, the ratio of power to mass. Our designs have a sigma from 0.75 to 2 kW/kg. With 2 kW/kg, the optimal exhaust velocity is 4000 km/s. The mission would take about 800 years. Our current designs can’t get exhaust velocities higher than 200 km/s. We’d need another method to produce thrust.
The next plot shows a point mission that reaches Alpha Centauri in 500 years. This requires a sigma of about 20. The spacecraft accelerates and decelerates continuously. The mission could be improved by staging, much like on a rocket that launches from the Earth into orbit.
The next figure shows how the starship would enter the Alpha Centauri system.
The final plot shows the orbital maneuvers that lower the orbit and rendezvous with the planet.
Even 500 years is a long time! This is over ten times the lifetime of Voyager, but much less than some engineering marvels built on the Earth.
We hope to someday be able to build fusion powered spacecraft that will head into interstellar space!