Proxima b: not really so proximate

September 15, 2016 — by Ryan Kim and Alex Yang

Our new home may be closer than we think.

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its 5-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations and boldly go where no man has gone before.” For all space geeks, this goosebump-inducing introduction to each “Star Trek” episode defines innovation in the field of space travel.

Now, fans and scientists alike are nerding out over the recent discovery of another planet outside of our solar system that may sustain life. Proxima b is a planet in the “nearby” Proxima Centauri solar system. It has been estimated to be close enough to the habitable zone of the solar system to have liquid water.

This hints at the possibility of alien life, a once-baseless idea that has since become a feasible theory, a massive project in space exploration, a major portion of the entertainment industry and a mass movement for space-nerds worldwide.

In fact, NASA released a statement on Aug. 24 that the James Webb Space Telescope, which is set to launch in 2018, will be capable of analyzing this new and promising planet through spectroscopy, a scientific method that manipulates electromagnetic radiation to detect matter. This will hopefully provide NASA with the atmosphere’s contents.

Don’t count on living there in your lifetime, however. Scientists estimate that Proxima Centauri is about four and a quarter light-years away, and it will take around 296,000 years for the fastest spacecraft ever reached by manmade probe, Voyager 2, to reach Proxima b.

Now, we must ask: Is researching this planet really worth our money, manpower and resources?

On the one hand, there’s some good news for space-enthusiasts. Scientists are currently developing a new technology that uses a laser beam to propel a huge, lightweight, sail-like drone into space. With this, scientists can send a probe to the planet in only 40 years, at 17 percent of the speed of light. Another project in development, the StarChip spacecraft, will be extremely light, small-scale drones that will also be able to reach Proxima within 20 to 30 years of their departure from Earth.

But both of these projects would come with a huge price tag. Space travel and space technology development has always been costly. Billionaire Elon Musk’s private space contractor SpaceX needed $1 billion to operate for its first decade. The Apollo Program, which sent astronauts to an extraterrestrial body less than one millionth of the distance away from Earth as the Proxima system, cost the United States $110 billion in today’s money. With current funding, it might be difficult for these projects to get enough capital to proceed.

Furthermore, the final mission cost of the StarChip, or Breakthrough Starshot program, is projected to be about $5 to $10 billion, but the good news is that the StarChip’s development could be done as early as 2036. Although this might sound far in the future, the fact that Interstellar drones may be created within our lifetimes is exciting.

Still, we have more immediate problems on our own planet than investigating potential for life on another; we have terrorism and political instability haunting the Middle East, Africa and Europe,  while the imminent threat of climate change continues.

These issues require lots of funding, energy and attention to solve and will preoccupy the governments around the globe for years. Seeing as they immediately affect the general population, these problems should be the focus of the governing bodies — long before approaching seemingly distant “fantasies.”

Back when space exploration was the main technological focus for the public, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were engaged in the “space race” of the Cold War era with their Apollo space program. This space race led to some technological advances in things like firefighter suits.

Although there were side benefits arising from the programs, the programs were just too costly, costing what is now $110 billion; the same is true for today. With the $10 billion price tag on the StarChip program, we could instead work on fixing pressing issues like world hunger or even combat global warming with funding into green energy research.

We just can’t afford giving up that much money in a gamble for indirect technological advancements, which very well may not come at all. Although it sounds crushing, we must, unfortunately, focus on our own, internal problems before journeying out into the stars.

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