Voyage to Pandora: First Interstellar Space Flight

Pandora is the idyllic blue world featured in the movie Avatar. Its location is a real place: Alpha Centauri, the nearest star to our Sun and the most likely destination for our first journey beyond the solar system.

Remarkably, it's anti-matter, the science fiction fuel of choice that could take us there. Normally, it's only created in powerful jets that roar out of black holes. We can now produce small quantities in Earth-bound particle colliders. Will we journey out only to plunder other worlds? Or will we come in peace? The answer may depend on how we see Earth at that time in the distant future.

The year is 2154. Our planet has been ruined by environmental catastrophe. In the movie Avatar, greedy prospectors from Earth descend on the world of an innocent hunter-gatherer people called the Na'vi.

Their home is a lush moon far beyond our solar system called Pandora. Could such a place exist? And could our technology... and our appetite for exploration... one day send us hurtling out to reach it?

In fact, the supposed site of this fictional solar system is one of our most likely interstellar targets, until a better destination turns up. Pandora orbits a fictional gas planet called Polyphemus. Its home is a real place... Alpha Centauri... the brightest star in the southern constellation of Centaurus.

At 4.37 light years away, it's part of the closest star system to our sun. Alpha Centauri is actually two stars, A and B, one slightly larger and more luminous than our own sun, the other slightly smaller.

The two stars orbit one other, swinging in as close as Saturn is to our Sun... then back out to the distance of Pluto. This means that any outer planets in this system... anything beyond, say, the orbit of Mars... would likely have been pulled away by the companion and flung out into space.

For this reason, Alpha Centauri was not high on planet hunters' lists... until they began studying a star 45 light years away called "Gamma Cephei." It has a small compani

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