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 52 comments.

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  1. Barkha Herman Inactive
    Barkha Herman
    @BarkhaHerman

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

    • #1
  2. Mark Wilson Member
    Mark Wilson
    @MarkWilson

    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
  3. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @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.

    • #3
  4. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

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

    • #4
  5. Barkha Herman Inactive
    Barkha Herman
    @BarkhaHerman

    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
  6. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    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
  7. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    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.

    • #7
  8. Barkha Herman Inactive
    Barkha Herman
    @BarkhaHerman

    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.

    • #8
  9. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    anonymous: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.

    • #9
  10. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    anonymous:

    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

    • #10
  11. Jon Gabriel, Ed. Admin
    Jon Gabriel, Ed.
    @jon

    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.

    • #11
  12. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert
    @DoctorRobert

    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.

    • #12
  13. Bigfoot Coolidge
    Bigfoot
    @Bigfoot

    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.”

    • #13
  14. Bigfoot Coolidge
    Bigfoot
    @Bigfoot

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

    • #14
  15. Kevin Creighton Contributor
    Kevin Creighton
    @KevinCreighton

    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.

    • #15
  16. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto
    @FrankSoto

    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.

    • #16
  17. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    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.

    • #17
  18. Jon Gabriel, Ed. Admin
    Jon Gabriel, Ed.
    @jon

    anonymous: 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.

    • #18
  19. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto
    @FrankSoto

    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.

    • #19
  20. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    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.

    • #20
  21. Chris Campion Coolidge
    Chris Campion
    @ChrisCampion

    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

    • #21
  22. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

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

    Never shoot a laser at  mirror.

    • #22
  23. Kevin Creighton Contributor
    Kevin Creighton
    @KevinCreighton

    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

    • #23
  24. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    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.

    • #24
  25. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert
    @DoctorRobert

    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.

    • #25
  26. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    anonymous:

    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.

    • #26
  27. Jason Bedrick Inactive
    Jason Bedrick
    @JasonBedrick

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

    • #27
  28. James Jones Member
    James Jones
    @JamesJones

    Manny:

    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.

    I’m not sure how you came up with 137,000 mph; that’s off by a factor of 1000: it’s 137,000,000 mph, or 38,000 mi/sec.

    This is a whole different class of velocity from what we’re used to seeing. Manmade rockets easily reach 20-30,000 mph, with some moving up to 50,000 mph, so doubling or trebling that is imaginable with somewhat more efficient versions of existing engines. These microscale laser-powered craft would be a whole different species, accelerating to 20% the speed of light.

    • #28
  29. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    I’d rather be on the team building the Space Elevator

    • #29
  30. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    James Jones:

    Manny:

    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.

    I’m not sure how you came up with 137,000 mph; that’s off by a factor of 1000: it’s 137,000,000 mph, or 38,000 mi/sec.

    This is a whole different class of velocity from what we’re used to seeing. Manmade rockets easily reach 20-30,000 mph, with some moving up to 50,000 mph, so doubling or trebling that is imaginable with somewhat more efficient versions of existing engines. These microscale laser-powered craft would be a whole different species, accelerating to 20% the speed of light.

    You’re right.  I plugged in 1.2 billion, not trillion.  I was off by a factor 1000.  It’s 137,000,000 mph.  That just seems unrealistic now.

    • #30

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