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Longshot to Alpha Centauri

When NASA's 2006-launched Far Horizons spacecraft reaches the distant planet Pluto in 2015, all the major world of the classical solar system will have been explored by robot probes.

Beyond Pluto and the Kuiper Belt is an immense gulf-4.24 light years in distance-to the nearest star.

While the notion of sending an automated spacecraft to Alpha Centauri C, the Sun's nearest stellar object, seems like science fiction today, a serious, successful study about such a space probe was completed 23 years ago this week.

With the exception of a fully operational thermonuclear fusion power source, there's no reason why NASA (or an international space consortium) couldn't send a sophisticated probe to the Alpha Centauri star system-within the next 10 to 25 years.

Known as Project Longshot, the first practical interstellar mission study was spearheaded by an unlikely duo, NASA and the U.S. Naval Academy between 1987 and 1988.

Longshot didn't receive much media attention back then, but it now stands as a seminal, conceptual interstellar mission effort.

Designed to be constructed in Earth orbit at a space station, Longshot uses both 1980s-era technology and futuristic fusion power technology. But just like the 1980s, the development of sustained inertial confinement fusion (or ICF) remains just beyond the reach of engineers in the 2010s. However, there have been significant advances in ICF experiments in recent years; it remains the most likely power source to get to the stars during the 21st century.

The Longshot interstellar mission was conceived as an unmanned probe that would fly, one way, to the Alpha Centauri system. Its speedy star trek would get a nice kick courtesy of a nuclear ICF pulse engine.

Compared to today's ponderous gravity assisted space probes, Longshot's 100-year-long trip to Alpha Centauri-at 4.5 percent the speed of light-would be like comparing its Roadrunner status to the 1970s NASA Voyagers' Wily Coyote.

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