The planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our solar system, is seen in an undated artist's impression released by the European Southern Observatory, Aug. 24, 2016. Reuters

At the recently concluded Fall 2017 meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in New Orleans, scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) presented a paper that spoke about a prospective mission to our nearest stellar neighbor, Proxima Centauri. Such a mission would require a spacecraft that travels at a tenth of the speed of light, and NASA is working on building such a vehicle by 2069, New Scientists reported Tuesday.

JPL’s Anthony Freeman was speaking Dec. 12 at the AGU meeting on his paper titled “The First Interstellar Explorer: What should it do when it Arrives at its Destination?” In his talk, he spoke about “mankind’s most ambitious project: a 40-year duration mission to visit a habitable-zone planet orbiting one of our nearest stellar neighbors.”

The project is too new to even have a formal name for itself, and almost all the technology needed for five of the six steps Freeman broke it up into doesn’t even exist yet, but the mission is still over 50 years away, meaning there is a lot of time for advances to take place.

“It’s very nebulous,” Freeman said, according to the New Scientist report.

Of the six mission phases, the first one — accelerating out of the solar system — is the simplest, and the only one that a human spacecraft — Voyager 1 — has already achieved. The other five — surviving the cruise to Proxima Centauri, slowing down on approach, adjusting the trajectory for a close encounter, acquiring data, and transmitting that information back to Earth, are all beyond our current capabilities.

Freeman’s paper addressed the third to the sixth phases, discussing some of the many related questions, such as the nature of the close encounter (flyby or orbit insertion) and the categories of information to be collected (images, surface spectral signatures, atmospheric composition, number of moons). All of this would also be affected by any new information we gather remotely from Earth in the 40 years the spacecraft would take from launch to its arrival at its destination.

Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf star, is the smallest of the three stars in the Alpha Centauri system about four light-years away, and it also hosts an exoplanet called Proxima b. The Earth-sized terrestrial planet was discovered in 2016, and it orbits its parent star at a distance of about four million kilometers, compared to the 150 million kilometers that separate Earth from the sun.

Despite the relative closeness to Proxima Centauri, Proxima b is thought be a likely candidate for potentially being able to host life. There have been arguments both in favor of the assertion, and against it. Any human mission that goes near the exoplanet, whether from NASA or another space agency, is certain to look for signs of alien life on it, or at the very least, try to ascertain if is habitable. A recent study found there could be other planets also in orbit around Proxima Centauri.

The year 2069 will mark the 100th anniversary of the first time a man (also the first human) stepped on a terrestrial surface that wasn’t on Earth. So a launch in that year would also be a tribute to NASA’s earlier accomplishment.