Reaching for the Stars; The Future of Space Exploration; Scientific American Presents; by Leifer; 2 Page(s)
The notion of traveling to the stars is a concept compelling enough to recur in countless cultural artifacts, from Roman poetry to 20th-century popular music. So ingrained has the concept become that when novelists, poets or lyricists write of reaching for the stars, it is instantly understood as a kind of cultural shorthand for striving for the unattainable.
Although interstellar travel remains a glorious if futuristic dream, a small group of engineers and scientists is already exploring concepts and conducting experiments that may lead to technologies capable of propelling spacecraft to speeds high enough to travel far beyond the edge of our solar system. A propulsion system based on nuclear fusion could carry humans to the outer planets and could propel robotic spacecraft thousands of astronomical units into interstellar space (an astronomical unit, at 150 million kilometers, or 93 million miles, is the average distance from Earth to the sun). Such a system might be built in the next several decades. Eventually, even more powerful engines fueled by the mutual annihilation of matter and antimatter might carry spacecraft to nearby stars, the closest of which is Proxima Centauri, some 270,000 astronomical units distant.