How Long Would it Take to Travel to Proxima Centauri?

Project Orion - Using nuclear explosions as pulsed propulsion (NASA)

This is one of those articles I’ve been meaning to write for a long time: How long would the interstellar transit be from Earth to the nearest star (and no, I don’t mean the Sun)? It turns out that there is no practical way, using today’s available technology that we can travel to Proxima Centauri (a red dwarf star, 4.33 light years from the Solar System). This is a shame as there are so many stars and so many exoplanets to explore, which space enthusiast wouldn’t want to envisage interstellar space travel? However, there may be help at hand, using modern technology and materials; we might be able to mount a manned expedition to Proxima lasting a little under a century…

So how long would it take? Using two examples, the SMART-1 propulsion system and Voyager’s gravitational sling-shot, we arrive at prohibitively long time scales. Using SMART-1’s ion thrusters (economical but very slow), we have an upper limit of 81,000 years to travel to Proxima Centauri (that’s 2700 generations!). Next up, gravitational assists (using the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn to boost a spacecraft into deep space). Voyager for example is travelling quite a lick through the limits of the outer Solar System. At 38,000 miles/hr, Voyager would take 76,000 years (2,500 generations) to travel to Proxima Centauri. Still not good, it seems we need to travel at an appreciable percentage of the speed of light before we turn the 4.33 light year trip from an epoch into a human lifetime.

There is one technology that does promise to succeed in this goal. Nuclear pulse propulsion could push a manned spaceship to 5% the speed of light. 5% of 4.33 light years is approximately 85 years… This is a very interesting concept, but the radioactive fallout is problematic to say the least.

For more, check out my Universe Today article How Long Would it Take to Travel to the Nearest Star? and have your say….

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23 thoughts on “How Long Would it Take to Travel to Proxima Centauri?”

  1. I had never heard of nuclear pulse propulsion before today — which led to a hunt across the tubes in order to learn more. Now I am really surprised that I had not heard of before today since research into has been going on for decades. I think that the antimatter catalyzed nuclear propulsion sounds fairly promising, and it would be wonderfully fantastic if I got to see this happen in my lifetime.

    Of course, I would like to see the beginning of the journey of humanity across the stars. I wonder how relativity will affect such a journey across the stars at 5% the speed of light. That will be interesting.

  2. Your velocity and travel time are also dependent on the amount of fuel and energy you can put into the engines, specifically the Mass Ratio of fuel to payload. When you say nuclear pulse propulsion can get us to 5% of C, if we carried more or less nuclear fuel, we might only get to 5.1% C or 4% C. Also, didn’t SMART-1’s ion thrusters use solar power? The sunlight would fade as we leave the solar system, we we could only thrust for a limited period of time, then coast in the relative darkness between stars.
    P.S. – Hi Ian. -Bruce

  3. It is my first time to hear about the nuclear pulse propulsion. Proxima Centauri was very far.. Well if you want to go to other countries rather you can rely on LMT. They will handle all the things you needed. Just what i experienced with them..

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  6. It' the nearest star.Searches for companions orbiting Proxima Centauri have been unsuccessful, ruling out the presence of brown dwarfs and supermassive planets. Precision radial velocity surveys have also ruled out the presence of super-Earths within the star's habitable zone. The detection of smaller objects will require the use of new instruments, such as the proposed Space Interferometry Mission. Since Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf and a flare star, whether a planet orbiting this star could support life is disputed. Because of the star's proximity, it has been proposed as a destination for interstellar travel.

  7. It' the nearest star.Searches for companions orbiting Proxima Centauri have been unsuccessful, ruling out the presence of brown dwarfs and supermassive planets. Precision radial velocity surveys have also ruled out the presence of super-Earths within the star's habitable zone. The detection of smaller objects will require the use of new instruments, such as the proposed Space Interferometry Mission. Since Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf and a flare star, whether a planet orbiting this star could support life is disputed. Because of the star's proximity, it has been proposed as a destination for interstellar travel.

  8. I think our first step is to colonize the solar system, that will give us better experience in developing faster propulsion systems. I'd say at least 50 to 100 years from now will be a more realistic attempt to send a probe to the nearest star system. I hope its within our life time.

  9. If what you say is true, how do they explain space travel in movies? I know movies shouldn't be taken into consideration as scientific facts because most of the times what we see are weird ramblings. Still, they travel with the speed of light or something because although they get to any galaxy quite fast, people on earth change whole generations. There was a rumor about space traveling as means of leisure for rich people. Imagine European Cruises selling time on the moon for instance. That would be awesome but terribly slow for us. We must either reach incredible speeds or just keep on dreaming we'll be able to explore ourselves the vast immensity of space.

  10. There are some very silly responses to this article.  The author is simply taking the distance to Proxima Centauri and dividing it by the velocity of technologies that exist–just for fun.  Of course there are countless other variables that would come into paly if this was taken seriously–that is beside the point.

    I want to add to the sillyness by saying: you can’t travel to a star because it is too hot and you would die.

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