Paul Gilster explains some of the ongoing research in computer simulation, communication systems, materials science, electronics, propulsion systems, and spacecraft development that may one day lead to an unmanned, possibly even robotic or manned, space probe being sent to Alpha Centauri, the nearest bright star outside of our solar system. The hopes, dreams, and thought experiments of many scientific researchers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and many academic institutions are focused on this intriguing journey. The engineering technology for a craft to make such a journey, the time constraints for traveling such vast distances, and the necessary funding for continuing research are primary challenges.
Possible propulsion methods explored by Gilster range from chemical rockets, to laser-powered solar sails, to nuclear fusion combined with antimatter reactions, to magnetospheric plasma sails that would be powered by the solar wind. In order to communicate with the interstellar spacecraft, navigate it, and provide the necessary maintenance, the development of very sophisticated, artificially intelligent computer systems will be required. Even using the best propulsion and computer systems presently conceived, the journey to Alpha Centauri will still require a minimum of thirty to fifty years. It is a formidable challenge, but as ingenious ideas continue to slowly evolve, the journey may become a reality for future generations. In the meantime, the reward for the developing technology may include manned space flights to Mars and robotic trips to the moons of Jupiter and to Neptune.
Although lacking any figures or illustrations, Centauri Dreams: Imagining and Planning Interstellar Exploration contains thirty pages of notes that enhance the reading. General audiences and professionals will find this book a fascinating read about the possibilities of future interstellar travel.