Billionaires … In … Space!

 
Starshot
A rendering of the “nanocraft” that would be sent as part of Breakthrough Starshot. The lightsail is about a meter wide. The starchip is the little dot in the center.

A Russian oligarch, Mark Zuckerberg, and Stephen Hawking walk into a bar… No this isn’t a joke, but a pretty cool space proposal. Their idea is to launch a fleet of laser-propelled “nanocrafts” that would swarm to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, in a 20-year voyage. It would take about four more years for the mini-probes to transmit photos and readings back to earth.

“The human story is one of great leaps,” said Yuri Milner, billionaire CEO of DST Global. “55 years ago today, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. Today, we are preparing for the next great leap — to the stars.”

The project is called Breakthrough Starshot (sounds like a bad Yes album) and requires at least $100 million to evolve from a pipe dream to a working plan. Then they’ll need up to $10 billion more (or 650.46 billion rubles) to actually get it off the ground.

The first step of the program involves building light-propelled “nanocrafts” that can travel at relativistic speeds—up to 20 percent the speed of light. At such high velocities, the robotic spacecraft would pass Pluto in three days and reach our nearest neighboring star system, Alpha Centauri, just over 20 years after launch…

The technology behind the billionaire’s ambitious proposal—of which prototypes were revealed today—includes a “Starchip,” a gram scale wafer carrying cameras, photon thrusters, power supply, navigation, and communication equipment. Propelling that miniature science laboratory is a “Lightsail,” a meter-sized sail that’s only a few hundred atoms thick and weighs a couple of grams. The light sail will be launched away from the Earth by a phased array of lasers, which Milner envisions carrying a combined power of over 100 Gigawatts, similar to the power needed to lift the Space Shuttle off Earth.

By directing that much energy at an object weighing just a few grams, we can theoretically accelerate said object up to 100,000,000 miles per hour—a thousand times faster than the fastest spacecraft today. The idea is to launch a small fleet of craft toward Alpha Centauri, allowing us to perform many, many New Horizon-like flybys of our nearest neighbor’s potentially habitable real-estate.

If this all sounds like the insanely ambitious fantasy of a starstruck billionaire, that’s because it is. But according to Milner, it’s also doable with technology not too far off. He believes we can be deploying our first nanocraft within a generation.

“The Breakthrough concept is based on technology either already available or likely to be available in the near future,” Milner said. “But as with any moonshot, there are major hurdles to be solved.”

It’s a starshot, not a moonshot, Yuri.

The most expensive part of this project is the massive array of earth-bound lasers which will propel the little suckers into the void. On their way, the probes could snap test pics of our own solar system from angles we’ve never seen.

What do you think, Ricochetti? Does this plan have a chance at success — either in tech or in the massive funding required?

There are 57 comments.

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  1. Barkha Herman Member

    It is inevitable. If not this go, then the next. Think Edison’s 1000 light bulbs.

    • #1
    • April 12, 2016, at 4:33 PM PDT
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  2. Mark Wilson Member

    Have they described how they expect to collect data from these devices? I’m not a EE but I imagine it’s not easy to transmit useful signals over four light-years.

    • #2
    • April 12, 2016, at 4:42 PM PDT
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  3. Instugator Thatcher

    Unless the sails reflect a significant percentage of the photons being beamed at them (absorbing less than 1 watt out of 1,000,000,000 being beamed at them) the craft would burn up.

    Oh, and those 999,999,999 watts being reflected back – probably eye unsafe to beyond the orbit of the moon.

    • #3
    • April 12, 2016, at 5:09 PM PDT
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  4. Judge Mental Member

    The array of lasers will come in useful as a planetary defense if the Kzinti attack.

    • #4
    • April 12, 2016, at 5:12 PM PDT
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  5. Barkha Herman Member

    Instugator:Unless the sails reflect a significant percentage of the photons being beamed at them (absorbing less than 1 watt out of 1,000,000,000 being beamed at them) the craft would burn up.

    Oh, and those 999,999,999 watts being reflected back – probably eye unsafe to beyond the orbit of the moon.

    Burning is a chemical reaction that needs oxygen. The Sails do not get deployed till in space. Would they burn?

    • #5
    • April 12, 2016, at 5:12 PM PDT
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  6. Judge Mental Member

    Barkha Herman:

    Instugator:Unless the sails reflect a significant percentage of the photons being beamed at them (absorbing less than 1 watt out of 1,000,000,000 being beamed at them) the craft would burn up.

    Oh, and those 999,999,999 watts being reflected back – probably eye unsafe to beyond the orbit of the moon.

    Burning is a chemical reaction that needs oxygen. The Sails do not get deployed till in space. Would they burn?

    You can still melt things without oxygen. Heat is heat.

    • #6
    • April 12, 2016, at 5:17 PM PDT
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  7. John Walker Contributor

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.: What do you think, Ricochetti? Does this plan have a chance at success — either in tech or in the massive funding required?

    This “Starshot” proposal is similar to the Starwisp concept which was advanced by Robert L. Forward in 1985. Freeman Dyson has also proposed very low mass interstellar probes. The idea is that if Moore’s Law continues to progress as it has in past decades, you can get the mass of a probe down to something small enough that you can afford to accelerate it to a velocity which will get it to the nearest stars in one human lifetime. Starwisp envisioned a total mass of 1 kg and a payload of 80 g. With progress since 1985, Starshot is aiming for a gram scale payload with a laser sail of several grams in mass.

    There’s a limit to how far you can push this. You can’t make a camera smaller than some multiple of the wavelength of light it’s supposed to image, and antennas can’t be very much smaller than the wavelength they’re transmitting. Also, if the probe is so small and light, any collision en route will destroy it.

    There is a discussion of this on Centauri Dreams.

    • #7
    • April 12, 2016, at 5:37 PM PDT
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  8. Instugator Thatcher

    Judge Mental:

    Barkha Herman:

    Instugator:Unless the sails reflect a significant percentage of the photons being beamed at them (absorbing less than 1 watt out of 1,000,000,000 being beamed at them) the craft would burn up.

    Oh, and those 999,999,999 watts being reflected back – probably eye unsafe to beyond the orbit of the moon.

    Burning is a chemical reaction that needs oxygen. The Sails do not get deployed till in space. Would they burn?

    You can still melt things without oxygen. Heat is heat.

    JM has the right of it. I was referring to heat management and not combustion.

    • #8
    • April 12, 2016, at 5:42 PM PDT
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  9. Barkha Herman Member

    The most common material in current designs is a thin layer of aluminum coating on a polymer (plastic) sheet, such as aluminized 2 µm Kapton film. The polymer provides mechanical support as well as flexibility, while the thin metal layer provides the reflectivity. Such material resists the heat of a pass close to the Sun and still remains reasonably strong. The aluminium reflecting film is on the Sun side. The sails of Cosmos 1 were made of aluminized PET film (Mylar).

    More here. I guess I am looking forward to wait and see how they solve the heat issue.

    • #9
    • April 12, 2016, at 5:52 PM PDT
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  10. Judge Mental Member

    John Walker:There’s a limit to how far you can push this. You can’t make a camera smaller than some multiple of the wavelength of light it’s supposed to image, and antennas can’t be very much smaller than the wavelength they’re transmitting. Also, if the probe is so small and light, any collision en route will destroy it.

    I think part of the logic behind sending a gazillion small craft rather than one is that you almost certainly will have losses along the way. If you’re sending one, then any loss means 100% loss. With a million, you can afford to lose a lot of them and still get an acceptable number to the other end. On the other hand, the smaller it gets, the more fragile. At some point, interstellar hydrogen would be a big enough problem to take out your whole fleet along the way.

    A question would be whether they can combine the capabilities into some kind of array to overcome the size limitations you mention. I can’t believe they would be able to maneuver in any meaningful way, so joining edge to edge physically seems unlikely, but some kind of virtual array might be doable.

    • #10
    • April 12, 2016, at 5:56 PM PDT
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  11. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher

    John Walker:

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.: What do you think, Ricochetti? Does this plan have a chance at success — either in tech or in the massive funding required?

    This “Starshot” proposal is similar to the Starwisp concept which was advanced by Robert L. Forward in 1985. Freeman Dyson has also proposed very low mass interstellar probes. The idea is that if Moore’s Law continues to progress as it has in past decades, you can get the mass of a probe down to something small enough that you can afford to accelerate it to a velocity which will get it to the nearest stars in one human lifetime. Starwisp envisioned a total mass of 1 kg and a payload of 80 g. With progress since 1985, Starshot is aiming for a gram scale payload with a laser sail of several grams in mass.

    There’s a limit to how far you can push this. You can’t make a camera smaller than some multiple of the wavelength of light it’s supposed to image, and antennas can’t be very much smaller than the wavelength they’re transmitting. Also, if the probe is so small and light, any collision en route will destroy it.

    There is a discussion of this on Centauri Dreams.

    The min wavelength was the first thing to cross my mind

    • #11
    • April 12, 2016, at 7:05 PM PDT
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  12. Jon Gabriel, Ed. Chief
    Jon Gabriel, Ed. Post author

    There is quite a bit more detail about this project at the official website. I thought this was interesting:

    The Breakthrough Starshot initiative is:

    • based entirely on research that is in the public domain.

    • committed to publishing new results.

    • dedicated to full transparency and open access.

    • open to experts in all relevant fields, as well as the public, to contribute ideas through its online forum.

    • #12
    • April 12, 2016, at 7:17 PM PDT
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  13. Doctor Robert Member

    No. No. No. A thousand times no. Sending objects to the deep cosmos in a way that connects back to Earth is a virtual invitation for a visit by whatever advanced civilization may encounter them. Ask the Tainos how such encounters turn out.

    • #13
    • April 12, 2016, at 7:47 PM PDT
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  14. Bigfoot Thatcher

    Doctor Robert:No. No. No. A thousand times no. Sending objects to the deep cosmos in a way that connects back to Earth is a virtual invitation for a visit by whatever advanced civilization may encounter them. Ask the Tainos how such encounters turn out.

    Too late. I arrived here 70 years ago and have been watching and reporting your “progress” since then. “Earthlings went on being friendly, when they should have been thinking instead.”

    • #14
    • April 12, 2016, at 8:17 PM PDT
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  15. Bigfoot Thatcher

    Seriously, this is a fascinating project to follow. There are numerous paths that it can take and many developments can result from it.

    • #15
    • April 12, 2016, at 8:19 PM PDT
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  16. Kevin Creighton Contributor

    Hawking’s backing means squat to me: This is interstellar travel here, not his specialty of black holes. He’s here to provide a recognizable “science” name, nothing more.

    But Freeman Dyson and Robert L. Forward? Okay, now I’m interested.

    • #16
    • April 12, 2016, at 8:40 PM PDT
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  17. Done Contributor

    Doctor Robert:No. No. No. A thousand times no. Sending objects to the deep cosmos in a way that connects back to Earth is a virtual invitation for a visit by whatever advanced civilization may encounter them. Ask the Tainos how such encounters turn out.

    If there is a civilization in Alpha Centauri sufficiently advanced to detect our probes then they are more advanced than us and already know about us.

    • #17
    • April 12, 2016, at 8:44 PM PDT
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  18. Judge Mental Member

    Frank Soto:

    Doctor Robert:No. No. No. A thousand times no. Sending objects to the deep cosmos in a way that connects back to Earth is a virtual invitation for a visit by whatever advanced civilization may encounter them. Ask the Tainos how such encounters turn out.

    If there is a civilization in Alpha Centauri sufficiently advanced to detect our probes then they are more advanced than us and already know about us.

    They will detect the probes because they will be paying increased attention to our direction after the incredibly bright lights we shine directly in their direction, for possibly years.

    • #18
    • April 12, 2016, at 8:56 PM PDT
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  19. Jon Gabriel, Ed. Chief
    Jon Gabriel, Ed. Post author

    John Walker: This “Starshot” proposal is similar to the Starwisp concept which was advanced by Robert L. Forward in 1985. Freeman Dyson has also proposed very low mass interstellar probes. The idea is that if Moore’s Law continues to progress as it has in past decades, you can get the mass of a probe down to something small enough that you can afford to accelerate it to a velocity which will get it to the nearest stars in one human lifetime. Starwisp envisioned a total mass of 1 kg and a payload of 80 g. With progress since 1985, Starshot is aiming for a gram scale payload with a laser sail of several grams in mass.

    Freeman Dyson is actually on the Management and Advisory Committee, along with a lot of other impressive thinkers.

    • #19
    • April 12, 2016, at 9:04 PM PDT
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  20. Done Contributor

    Judge Mental:

    Frank Soto:

    Doctor Robert:No. No. No. A thousand times no. Sending objects to the deep cosmos in a way that connects back to Earth is a virtual invitation for a visit by whatever advanced civilization may encounter them. Ask the Tainos how such encounters turn out.

    If there is a civilization in Alpha Centauri sufficiently advanced to detect our probes then they are more advanced than us and already know about us.

    They will detect the probes because they will be paying increased attention to our direction after the incredibly bright lights we shine directly in their direction, for possibly years.

    100 gigawatts sounds like a lot of power but on the cosmic scale it’s incredibly small.

    If they can spot it they are already at a level of Technology where they are fully aware of us.

    • #20
    • April 12, 2016, at 9:11 PM PDT
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  21. Judge Mental Member

    Frank Soto:

    Judge Mental:

    Frank Soto:

    Doctor Robert:No. No. No. A thousand times no. Sending objects to the deep cosmos in a way that connects back to Earth is a virtual invitation for a visit by whatever advanced civilization may encounter them. Ask the Tainos how such encounters turn out.

    If there is a civilization in Alpha Centauri sufficiently advanced to detect our probes then they are more advanced than us and already know about us.

    They will detect the probes because they will be paying increased attention to our direction after the incredibly bright lights we shine directly in their direction, for possibly years.

    100 gigawatts sounds like a lot of power but on the cosmic scale it’s incredibly small.

    If they can spot it they are already at a level of Technology where they are fully aware of us.

    See The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.

    • #21
    • April 12, 2016, at 9:39 PM PDT
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  22. Chris Campion Coolidge

    So – we’re pointing gigantic lasers at another star, and sending a battle fleet to invade them?

    Good times! Usually it’s the other way around. Klaatu Barada Nikto THIS, bro!

    marsattacks04

    • #22
    • April 13, 2016, at 3:21 AM PDT
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  23. Hartmann von Aue Member

    Judge Mental:The array of lasers will come in useful as a planetary defense if the Kzinti attack.

    Never shoot a laser at mirror.

    • #23
    • April 13, 2016, at 3:38 AM PDT
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  24. Kevin Creighton Contributor

    Judge Mental:The array of lasers will come in useful as a planetary defense if the Kzinti attack.

    Only if there’s a few Belters around who remember how to fight. #SciFiNerd #TheRingworldIsUnstable

    • #24
    • April 13, 2016, at 6:09 AM PDT
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  25. Manny Member

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.:What do you think, Ricochetti? Does this plan have a chance at success — either in tech or in the massive funding required?

    I guess that depends on how laser-propelled “nanocrafts” work? I’m writing this before I read the other replies. I have never heard of such a thing, and given the distance is over 4 light years (24 trillion miles) which means the crafts would have to travel at 1.2 trillion miles per year which comes out to about 137,000 mph (61,000 m/s) to get there in 20 years. I guess it doesn’t seem outrageous depending on how nanocrafts work but it does seem unlikely. I can’t envision it.

    • #25
    • April 13, 2016, at 6:24 AM PDT
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  26. Doctor Robert Member

    Bigfoot, Frank and Judge miss an important point.

    A far-off civilization may or may not know of us. If they don’t, then they cannot harm us.

    There is no reason to bring ourselves to their attention. Perhaps someday when we can ourselves blithely travel between star systems, sure, go looking for neighbors. But one sees no reason to draw attention to ourselves with stunts like this or the incredibly ill-conceived golden record on Voyager 2. There is no example in all of human history of technologically disparate cultures meeting, in which things ended well for the less advanced group.

    • #26
    • April 13, 2016, at 6:47 AM PDT
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  27. John Walker Contributor

    Manny: I guess that depends on how laser-propelled “nanocrafts” work?

    Conceptually, it’s very simple. Light has momentum (this was described in Section 8 of Einstein’s 1905 paper, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”, which is better known for its introduction of special relativity). When light bounces off a mirror, it exerts a force upon the mirror. In normal circumstances, this force is weak, but the light pressure from the Sun affects the orbits of satellites and must be taken into account when designing and operating them. Pressure exerted by light is not a theoretical concept, but an engineering fact.

    Therefore, if you have a really light (low mass) mirror (the design envisions a mirror just a few hundred atoms thick) and a really bright light (an array of lasers with a power output of 100 gigawatts is proposed), you can accelerate the mirror really quickly. The proposal is for a 30 minute acceleration period at 60,000 g, reaching a final velocity of 20% of the speed of light. The rest of the flight to the destination is coasting. There is no deceleration at the target; the probe just flies through the system, making observations, and relays them back to Earth.

    One hundred gigawatts is a lot of power: a typical electrical generating station on the power grid produces between one and two gigawatts. The hundred gigawatts for the laser is not continuous, however, since each shot is just 30 minutes. Part of the system will have to be the power storage which accumulates the energy for the shot from the power grid between shots. The total energy of each shot is 50 gigawatt hours, so if electricity is purchased at a price of 5 cents per kilowatt hour, neglecting losses in conversion and storage, the electricity cost per shot will be US$ 2.5 million. This is modest compared to the capital cost of the power storage facility and laser array.

    • #27
    • April 13, 2016, at 6:56 AM PDT
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  28. Manny Member

    John Walker:

    Manny: I guess that depends on how laser-propelled “nanocrafts” work?

    Conceptually, it’s very simple. Light has momentum (this was described in Section 8 of Einstein’s 1905 paper, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”, which is better known for its introduction of special relativity). When light bounces off a mirror, it exerts a force …The proposal is for a 30 minute acceleration period at 60,000 g, reaching a final velocity of 20% of the speed of light. The rest of the flight to the destination is coasting. There is no deceleration at the target; the probe just flies through the system, making observations, and relays them back to Earth.

    One hundred gigawatts is a lot of power…

    Hey thanks. So does that kind of power equate to making those nanocrafts go 137,000 mph? And does that mean the power only has to be generated for the 30 minutes? I guess there’s no drag on the crafts, but how do the crafts maneuver? I was thinking of continuous propulsion for the 20 years as a sort of beam rider, and so the aiming inaccuracies would get adjusted as the crafts got closer to their destination. Just a infinitesimal fraction of aiming error over those distances could put you way, way off.

    • #28
    • April 13, 2016, at 7:10 AM PDT
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  29. Jason Bedrick Member

    Love the “History of the World, Part I” reference.

    • #29
    • April 13, 2016, at 7:18 AM PDT
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  30. John Walker Contributor

    Doctor Robert: There is no reason to bring ourselves to their attention. Perhaps someday when we can ourselves blithely travel between star systems, sure, go looking for neighbors. But one sees no reason to draw attention to ourselves with stunts like this or the incredibly ill-conceived golden record on Voyager 2.

    That horse has already left the barn.

    It is self-evident that any civilisation which is able to cross interstellar distances and cause trouble for Earth will necessarily be much more technologically advanced than our own (because we couldn’t do that ourselves with our present technology and access to energy). And yet, with our existing technology, we know how to detect and image planets around nearby stars sufficiently well to determine if they bear life (which can be deduced from the presence of non-equilibrium gases such as oxygen, ozone, and methane) in their atmospheres and evidence for a technological civilisation (emission of electromagnetic energy, city lights at night, etc.). We don’t have the budget to build such instruments at present, but if we did (it would probably have a cost comparable to the Manhattan Project or Apollo), scientists know how to build them.

    So this means that extraterrestrials with interstellar travel capability and the inclination to attack other potential competitors will almost certainly have built instruments to survey their neighbourhood for evidence of them, whether the other civilisations draw attention to themselves or not. Hostile aliens around Alpha Centauri, after discovering the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere (including industrial pollutants) and city lights, would immediately start to eavesdrop upon electromagnetic emissions (for example, military radars) which would provide evidence for a technological civilisation.

    Only by completely eradicating technological civilisation and the evidence it produces for its existence would we be able to put the Earth into “stealth mode” against hostile aliens. But then, by doing so, we’d be doing the aliens’ work for them. I’m more worried about bubbleheads from Earth who want to destroy technological civilisation.

    • #30
    • April 13, 2016, at 7:19 AM PDT
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