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?

Published in Science & Technology
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  1. Peabody Here Inactive
    Peabody Here
    @PeabodyHere

    …or a good Yes album.

    • #31
  2. Manny Coolidge
    Manny
    @Manny

    anonymous:

    It isn’t 137,000 miles per hour. A velocity of 0.2 c (20% of the speed of light) is 216 million kilometres/hour, or 134 million miles per hour or, if you prefer, 37,200 miles per second.

    You couldn’t provide continuous propulsion to such a small craft over the whole trip because keeping the beam narrow enough to remain focused on the sail over such great distances would require a lens (or mirror) as large as a planet. Besides, you couldn’t possibly afford the energy cost to keep a 100 gigawatt laser running continuously for 20 years.

    The issues of steering the beam during the propulsion phase and keeping the craft on target are discussed on the Breakthrough Starshot Challenges page. These are among the formidable engineering problems such a project will have to overcome. This is by no means an off-the-shelf undertaking. I think it’s safe to say that at present we don’t know how to solve all of these problems or whether they can be solved at all. They have been discussed for decades; now it appears we’re going to find out whether this can actually be done.

    You’re right.  I screwed up the decimal place.  I don’t see how this is possible.

    Investors save your money.

    • #32
  3. EvlMdnghtBmr Inactive
    EvlMdnghtBmr
    @Evlmdghtbmr

    anonymous:

    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.

    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.

    I’ve never really understood this concern.  The universe is (to understate things) really big and mostly unpopulated.  The main reasons to invade another planet would be resources and workers.  There is much lower hanging fruit resource-wise however, for a civilization capable of interstellar travel.  Mine an asteroid or two.  Presumably, they would also be sufficiently technically adept to build capable robots for any menial tasks.  So, what (aside from sheer meanness, which is possible) would be the motivation for invading?

    • #33
  4. Mark Wilson Member
    Mark Wilson
    @MarkWilson

    EvlMdnghtBmr: The main reasons to invade another planet would be resources and workers. There is much lower hanging fruit resource-wise however, for a civilization capable of interstellar travel. Mine an asteroid or two. Presumably, they would also be sufficiently technically adept to build capable robots for any menial tasks. So, what (aside from sheer meanness, which is possible) would be the motivation for invading?

    Habitability for colonization.

    • #34
  5. MisterSirius Member
    MisterSirius
    @MisterSirius

    Is the proposed trip a high-speed fly-by, or do they stop?

    FWIW&IIRC, Dr. Forward had a method of reflecting the laser light in such a way as to decelerate at the target star. The big round sail separates into “donut” and “hole,” with one element then turning around so it can receive reflected laser light from the other.

    • #35
  6. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    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.

    I like the metaphor of dandelion fluff in hurricane force winds.  There would be no maneuvering; the challenge would be to ‘blow’ them accurately with one strong puff of ‘wind’.

    • #36
  7. Manny Coolidge
    Manny
    @Manny

    Judge Mental:

    Manny:

    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.

    I like the metaphor of dandelion fluff in hurricane force winds. There would be no maneuvering; the challenge would be to ‘blow’ them accurately with one strong puff of ‘wind’.

    Well, that’s about as likely as teleporting there. :)

    • #37
  8. Mark Wilson Member
    Mark Wilson
    @MarkWilson

    Judge Mental:

    I like the metaphor of dandelion fluff in hurricane force winds. There would be no maneuvering; the challenge would be to ‘blow’ them accurately with one strong puff of ‘wind’.

    Navigation and guidance will be a challenge.  The distance to Alpha Centauri is about 1.3 parsecs.  That means one arcsecond of directional error in the flight of the nanoprobes as they leave the solar system results in missing Alpha Centauri by more than the distance from the Earth to the Sun.  An arcsecond is about 0.00028°.  And the flight path of the nanoprobes will continue to be curved by the Sun’s gravity and that of the planets for years after they leave the solar system.

    I would be surprised if our gravitational maps are accurate enough to calculate orbits with that precision, let alone to actually fly one.  Unless we can somehow fire up those lasers to adjust their velocity along the way.  But a lateral velocity adjustment would be very hard at that distance.

    Just thinking out loud.

    • #38
  9. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    Mark Wilson:

    Judge Mental:

    I like the metaphor of dandelion fluff in hurricane force winds. There would be no maneuvering; the challenge would be to ‘blow’ them accurately with one strong puff of ‘wind’.

    Navigation and guidance will be a challenge. The distance to Alpha Centauri is about 1.3 parsecs. That means one arcsecond of directional error in the flight of the nanoprobes as they leave the solar system results in missing Alpha Centauri by more than the distance from the Earth to the Sun. An arcsecond is about 0.00028°. And the flight path of the nanoprobes will continue to be curved by the Sun’s gravity and that of the planets for years after they leave the solar system.

    I would be surprised if our gravitational maps are accurate enough to calculate orbits with that precision, let alone to actually fly one. Unless we can somehow fire up those lasers to adjust their velocity along the way. But a lateral velocity adjustment would be very hard at that distance.

    Just thinking out loud.

    That’s why I was surprised to learn they are only talking about 30 minutes of laser.  I had previously assumed perhaps years (based on what I’ve seen of setups to launch a manned craft).

    I think they would be happy with only one astral unit off, and I doubt they would be trying to blow them directly into the star.  Better readings if they just blow through the system.

    • #39
  10. Mark Wilson Member
    Mark Wilson
    @MarkWilson

    Judge Mental:

    I think they would be happy with only one astral unit off, and I doubt they would be trying to blow them directly into the star. Better readings if they just blow through the system.

    Agreed. But remember it’s 1.3 AU of miss per arcsecond of error.  Pluto’s mean orbital radius is about 41 AU.  I would expect the velocity to be off by at least tens or hundreds of arcseconds or more, so the miss would be multiples of Pluto’s distance from the sun.  I wonder what kind of instruments you can mount on a 1 gram spacecraft that would be useful at that distance.

    • #40
  11. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    Mark Wilson:

    Judge Mental:

    I think they would be happy with only one astral unit off, and I doubt they would be trying to blow them directly into the star. Better readings if they just blow through the system.

    Agreed. But remember it’s 1.3 AU of miss per arcsecond of error. Pluto’s mean orbital radius is about 41 AU. I would expect the velocity to be off by at least tens or hundreds of arcseconds or more, so the miss would be multiples of Pluto’s distance from the sun. I wonder what kind of instruments you can mount on a 1 gram spacecraft that would be useful at that distance.

    No disagreement here, but the cost mentioned is well under 1% of Mark Zuckerberg’s assets.  If I had that kind of money I would spend that much on a probably loony, but extremely cool idea.  And hey… jobs for Americans.

    • #41
  12. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    anonymous:

    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.

    The speed of the Alien invasion in the TV show, “The Colony” Is how it would be. Nothing we could do. They found trouble makers based on places like Ricochet.

    • #42
  13. Batjac Inactive
    Batjac
    @Batjac

    This seems terribly  inefficient to me.  For only 1.21 gigawatts we could send a DeLorean there.

    • #43
  14. Calvin Dodge Member
    Calvin Dodge
    @CalvinDodge

    anonymous:

    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.

    At 20% of the speed of light, a collision en route will destroy pretty much anything.

    • #44
  15. Mark Wilson Member
    Mark Wilson
    @MarkWilson

    Calvin Dodge:

    anonymous:

    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.

    At 20% of the speed of light, a collision en route will destroy pretty much anything.

    Reminds me of Relativistic Baseball.

    04

    • #45
  16. Duncan Winn Member
    Duncan Winn
    @DuncanWinn

    Seems like you might be able to detect a few hundred (tens?) physical objects coming in at 20% of light speed.

    • #46
  17. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    Duncan Winn:Seems like you might be able to detect a few hundred (tens?) physical objects coming in at 20% of light speed.

    The best design would have a perfect mirror finish on the side towards the laser, and be space black on the other side, which would be the side pointing towards the Centurians.  And they are too small to block out much of anything, so they would be tough to spot.

    • #47
  18. Mark Wilson Member
    Mark Wilson
    @MarkWilson

    Judge Mental:

    Duncan Winn:Seems like you might be able to detect a few hundred (tens?) physical objects coming in at 20% of light speed.

    The best design would have a perfect mirror finish on the side towards the laser, and be space black on the other side, which would be the side pointing towards the Centurians. And they are too small to block out much of anything, so they would be tough to spot.

    There would be a nice bright flash of 100 GW laser light that would give away our location to the Centurians even if they can’t detect the probes.

    • #48
  19. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    Mark Wilson:

    Judge Mental:

    Duncan Winn:Seems like you might be able to detect a few hundred (tens?) physical objects coming in at 20% of light speed.

    The best design would have a perfect mirror finish on the side towards the laser, and be space black on the other side, which would be the side pointing towards the Centurians. And they are too small to block out much of anything, so they would be tough to spot.

    There would be a nice bright flash of 100 GW laser light that would give away our location to the Centurians even if they can’t detect the probes.

    That was my thought in an earlier comment.  Someone else suggested that it wouldn’t be bright enough but I don’t know.  I eventually figured out a way to part of the math, but not all of it.  It might be a significant increase, and it could be green or red or some other distinctly non yellow dwarf color. But these guys are only talking about 30 minutes… a lot harder to spot.

    • #49
  20. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    Judge Mental:

    But these guys are only talking about 30 minutes… a lot harder to spot.

    Like the WOW signal?

    • #50
  21. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    Instugator:

    Judge Mental:

    But these guys are only talking about 30 minutes… a lot harder to spot.

    Like the WOW signal?

    From their end it could look something like that.

    • #51
  22. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto
    @FrankSoto

    Batjac:This seems terribly inefficient to me. For only 1.21 gigawatts we could send a DeLorean there.

    That’s jigawatts.

    • #52
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