Alpha Centauri, here we come!

April 13, 2016 | By | Reply More

Internet investor and science philanthropist Yuri Milner was joined at One World Observatory today by renowned cosmologist Stephen Hawking to announce a new Breakthrough Initiative focusing on space exploration and the search for life in the Universe.

Breakthrough Starshot is a $100 million research and engineering program aiming to demonstrate proof of concept for light-propelled nanocrafts. These could fly at 20 percent of light speed and capture images of possible planets and other scientific data in our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, just over 20 years after their launch.

The program will be led by Pete Worden, the former director of NASA AMES Research Center, and advised by a committee of world-class scientists and engineers. The board will consist of Stephen Hawking, Yuri Milner, and Mark Zuckerberg.

Ann Druyan, Freeman Dyson, Mae Jemison, Avi Loeb and Pete Worden also participated in the announcement.

Alpha Centauri, here we come!

Alpha Centauri, here we come!

The Alpha Centauri star system is 25 trillion miles (4.37 light years) away. With today’s fastest spacecraft, it would take about 30,000 years to get there. Breakthrough Starshot aims to establish whether a gram-scale nanocraft, on a sail pushed by a light beam, can fly over a thousand times faster. It brings the Silicon Valley approach to space travel, capitalizing on exponential advances in certain areas of technology since the beginning of the 21st century.

1. Nanocrafts

Nanocrafts are gram-scale robotic spacecrafts comprising two main parts:

StarChip: Moore’s law has allowed a dramatic decrease in the size of microelectronic components. This creates the possibility of a gram-scale wafer, carrying cameras, photon thrusters, power supply, navigation and communication equipment, and constituting a fully functional space probe.
Lightsail: Advances in nanotechnology are producing increasingly thin and light-weight metamaterials, promising to enable the fabrication of meter-scale sails no more than a few hundred atoms thick and at gram-scale mass.

2. Light Beamer

The rising power and falling cost of lasers, consistent with Moore’s law, lead to significant advances in light beaming technology. Meanwhile, phased arrays of lasers (the ‘light beamer’) could potentially be scaled up to the 100 gigawatt level.

Breakthrough Starshot aims to bring economies of scale to the astronomical scale. The StarChip can be mass-produced at the cost of an iPhone and be sent on missions in large numbers to provide redundancy and coverage. The light beamer is modular and scalable. Once it is assembled and the technology matures, the cost of each launch is expected to fall to a few hundred thousand dollars.

The research and engineering phase is expected to last a number of years. Following that, development of the ultimate mission to Alpha Centauri would require a budget comparable to the largest current scientific experiments, and would involve:

  • Building a ground-based kilometer-scale light beamer at high altitude in dry conditions.
  • Generating and storing a few gigawatt hours of energy per launch.
  • Launching a ‘mothership’ carrying thousands of nanocrafts to a high-altitude orbit.
  • Taking advantage of adaptive optics technology in real time to compensate for atmospheric effects.
  • Focusing the light beam on the lightsail to accelerate individual nanocrafts to the target speed within minutes.
  • Accounting for interstellar dust collisions en route to the target.
  • Capturing images of a planet, and other scientific data, and transmitting them back to Earth using a compact on-board laser communications system.
  • Using the same light beamer that launched the nanocrafts to receive data from them over 4 years later.

Astronomers estimate that there is a reasonable chance of an Earth-like planet existing in the ‘habitable zones’ of Alpha Centauri’s three-star system. A number of scientific instruments, ground-based and space-based, are being developed and enhanced, which will soon identify and characterize planets around nearby stars.

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Colonel Frog is a long time science fiction and fantasy fan. He loves reading novels in the field, and he also enjoys watching movies (as well as reading lots of other genre books).

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