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  • richardmitnick 12:14 pm on June 2, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Breakthrough Starshot, , , Harry Atwater   

    From Caltech: “Building the Starshot Sail: A Q&A with Harry Atwater” 

    Caltech Logo

    From Caltech

    06/01/2018

    Robert Perkins
    (626) 395-1862
    rperkins@caltech.edu

    Breakthrough Starshot image. Credit: Breakthrough Starshot

    When manmade probes finally reach other stars, they will not be powered by rockets. Instead, they may be riding on a gossamer-thin sail that is being blasted by a giant laser beam. Harry Atwater, Howard Hughes Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science, is a project leader of the Breakthrough Starshot Program,which seeks to make these probes a reality. In a new paper published on May 7 in Nature Materials, Atwater explores some of the major challenges the project will face in its bid to make humanity an interstellar species. We recently sat down with him to talk about the program.

    What exactly is the Breakthrough Starshot Program?

    It is a multi-disciplinary $100-million project that was announced in 2016, aimed at designing a spacecraft that can be launched to planets surrounding other stars and reach them within our lifetime. The idea is to develop spacecraft that are capable of traveling at nearly 20 percent of the speed of light.
    Why can’t that be done with conventional rockets?

    The issue with traditional rocket propulsion is that the final velocity of the rocket is limited by the final velocity of the fuel ejected from the rocket. For chemical propellants, the upper limit of the final velocity is way too low. The fastest spacecraft that has ever been launched would take tens of thousands of years to reach the nearest star, Alpha Centauri C. That is clearly impractical for any interstellar mission.

    To overcome that, we’re planning to use light itself as the fuel. In other words, we are taking advantage of the principle of conservation of momentum between light and materials. If I have a reflective object and I shine light on it, the recoiling or reflecting photons impart momentum to the object. If the object is light enough, that momentum can act as a propulsive force, and then the final velocity of that probe is limited only by the velocity of light itself.

    What is your role in the project?

    I’m an advisor to the Breakthrough Starshot Program. The program has three big technical challenges: The first is to build the so-called photon engine, the laser that’s capable of propelling the sail; the second is to design the sail itself; and the third is to design the payload, which will be a tiny spacecraft capable of taking images and spectral data and then beaming them back to the earth. My role is to help the program define pathways to making a viable lightsail that’s compatible with the other objectives of the whole program. It isn’t going to be easy: we have to make an ultra-lightweight large-scale object that is firmly and dynamically stable under propulsion.

    What other challenges are there?

    The challenges that we address in our latest paper are developing the design and materials requirements for this really extreme set of engineering conditions. We require something that has a mass of no more than a gram, but which covers an area of about 10 square meters. That means that the average thickness will be on the order of tens to hundreds of nanometers; much thinner than a human hair.

    This wafer-thin material will be subject to intense laser radiation during the propulsion phase, with an intensity of megawatts per square meter. That’s not the highest intensity that has ever been generated in a laboratory, but it’s a very high intensity to interact with an ultra-thin, gossamer-like membrane structure of the kind that we’re talking about here. So the biggest requirement is that it has to be ultra-reflective so we can impart momentum and propel the lightsail.

    Are there any materials, or families of materials, that look promising for this?

    Yes. The best materials are the ones that are dielectric, or insulating, rather than metallic materials, which transmit electrical charges. A good example of a dielectric that everyone is familiar with is glass, which is highly non-absorbing. Unfortunately, glass is a little too low in its reflectivity to be an efficient candidate for lightsail material, but nonetheless it points the way. The best materials to think about are ones that have higher reflectivity but similarly low absorption coefficients.

    How does this work fit in with your broader research goals?

    My research team is very interested in how light interacts with nanoscale materials, or materials that are sculpted or shaped at the scale of the wavelength itself. One of the things that’s fascinating is that nanostructured materials may be able to generate really optimal trade-offs between mass and reflectivity, and also help give stability to the sail. We need the sail to be passably stable, meaning that it doesn’t fall off the laser beam, so to speak.

    [My totally uneducated surmise: Don’t hold your breath.]

    See the full article here .


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    The California Institute of Technology (commonly referred to as Caltech) is a private research university located in Pasadena, California, United States. Caltech has six academic divisions with strong emphases on science and engineering. Its 124-acre (50 ha) primary campus is located approximately 11 mi (18 km) northeast of downtown Los Angeles. “The mission of the California Institute of Technology is to expand human knowledge and benefit society through research integrated with education. We investigate the most challenging, fundamental problems in science and technology in a singularly collegial, interdisciplinary atmosphere, while educating outstanding students to become creative members of society.”

    Caltech campus

     
  • richardmitnick 3:19 pm on July 27, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Breakthrough Starshot, , , Piggybacking on a couple of German satellites six Sprites reached low Earth orbit about 600 kilometres high on June 23.,   

    From Motherboard: “To Get to An Alien Star, Scientists Launched the Tiniest Spacecraft Ever” 

    motherboard

    Motherboard

    Jul 27 2017
    Jacob Dubé

    1
    Image: Zachary Manchester, Nasa on the Commons/Flickr. Photoshop: Jacob Dubé

    Breakthrough Starshot wants to go to Alpha Centauri.

    Breakthrough Starshot, the brainchild of everyone’s favourite physicist Stephen Hawking and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, has the goal of getting humanity to the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, which is 4.37 light years away. Hawking and Milner have proposed doing this with an array of tiny “nanocrafts,” and now, the mission has successfully launched the world’s smallest spacecraft into orbit around Earth.

    The crafts, named “Sprites,” are 3.5-by-3.5 centimetre chips, built on a single circuit board—each one is just shy of the size of an Oreo, yet contains computers, sensors, solar panels, and radios. Piggybacking on a couple of German satellites, six Sprites reached low Earth orbit, about 600 kilometres high, on June 23. Two Sprites are currently attached to satellites, and four are in a deployer attached to one of the satellites to be released later.

    Zac Manchester, consultant for Breakthrough Starshot who created the concept of the Sprites and Kickstarted them in 2011, raising over $74,000, told Motherboard that this is the first time his team has been able to make a real demonstration of the crafts in space and communicate with them from the ground.

    The Sprites, which weigh about four grams each and cost only $25 to make, have basic sensors like magnetometers and gyroscopes, but Manchester hopes to upgrade them with actuators for mobility, as well as more advanced sensors like chemical detectors that would allow them to explore alien environments.

    Manchester said that their low cost would allow astronauts to take more risks and send them places they wouldn’t usually go: You can picture astronauts in orbit around an alien (and possibly hostile) planet, sending a fleet of Sprites down to take some readings.

    “If you want to get up-close and even sample things, you wouldn’t want to do that with your billion-dollar satellite,” Manchester said. “But you can imagine deploying a whole bunch of these little Sprite spacecrafts and sample directly.” Because they’re cheap and unmanned, he added, “you wouldn’t care if a whole bunch of them were destroyed in the process.”

    Manchester said that, in the future, several Sprites could be networked together and function as a swarm; each with its own sensors, performing different tasks and sharing information. Since it would take the Space Shuttle some 165,000 years to get to Alpha Centauri with humans inside, sending a fleet of tiny nanobots sounds like a pretty good idea.

    See the full article here .

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    The future is wonderful, the future is terrifying. We should know, we live there. Whether on the ground or on the web, Motherboard travels the world to uncover the tech and science stories that define what’s coming next for this quickly-evolving planet of ours.

    Motherboard is a multi-platform, multimedia publication, relying on longform reporting, in-depth blogging, and video and film production to ensure every story is presented in its most gripping and relatable format. Beyond that, we are dedicated to bringing our audience honest portraits of the futures we face, so you can be better informed in your decision-making today.

     
  • richardmitnick 3:40 pm on June 30, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , Breakthrough Starshot, , Cosmic Modesty’ in a Fecund Universe, , ,   

    From Centauri Dreams: “‘Cosmic Modesty’ in a Fecund Universe” 

    Centauri Dreams

    8

    June 30, 2017
    Paul Gilster

    I came across the work of Chin-Fei Lee (Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Taiwan) when I had just read Avi Loeb’s essay Cosmic Modesty. Loeb (Harvard University) is a well known astronomer, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and a key player in Breakthrough Starshot.

    Breakthrough Starshot Initiative

    Breakthrough Starshot

    ESO 3.6m telescope & HARPS at LaSilla, 600 km north of Santiago de Chile at an altitude of 2400 metres.

    SPACEOBS, the San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations Observatory is located at 2450m above sea level, north of the Atacama Desert, in Chile, near to the village of San Pedro de Atacama and close to the border with Bolivia and Argentina

    SNO Sierra Nevada Observatory is a high elevation observatory 2900m above the sea level located in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Granada Spain and operated maintained and supplied by IAC

    Teide Observatory in Tenerife Spain, home of two 40 cm LCO telescopes

    Observatori Astronòmic del Montsec (OAdM), located in the town of Sant Esteve de la Sarga (Pallars Jussà), 1,570 meters on the sea level

    Bayfordbury Observatory,approximately 6 miles from the main campus of the University of Hertfordshire

    [And, don’t forget Breakthrough Listen

    Breakthrough Listen Project

    1

    Lick Automated Planet Finder telescope, Mount Hamilton, CA, USA



    GBO radio telescope, Green Bank, West Virginia, USA


    CSIRO/Parkes Observatory, located 20 kilometres north of the town of Parkes, New South Wales, Australia

    His ‘cosmic modesty’ implies we should accept the idea that humans are not intrinsically special. Indeed, given that the only planet we know that hosts life has both intelligent and primitive lifeforms on it, we should search widely, and not just around stars like our Sun.

    More on that in a moment, because I want to intertwine Loeb’s thoughts with recent work by Chin-Fei Lee, whose team has used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to detect organic molecules in an accretion disk around a young protostar. The star in question is Herbig-Haro (HH) 212, an infant system (about 40,000 years old) in Orion about 1300 light years away. Seen nearly edge-on from our perspective on Earth, the star’s accretion disk is feeding a bipolar jet. This team’s results, to my mind, remind us why cosmic modesty seems like a viable course, while highlighting the magnitude of the question.

    What Lee’s team has found at HH 212 is an atmosphere of complex organic molecules associated with the disk. Methanol (CH3OH) is involved, as is deuterated methanol (CH2DOH), methanethiol (CH3SH), and formamide (NH2CHO), which the researchers see as precursors for producing biomolecules like amino acids and sugars. “They are likely formed on icy grains in the disk and then released into the gas phase because of heating from stellar radiation or some other means, such as shocks,” says co-author Zhi-Yun Li of the University of Virginia.

    1
    Image: Jet, disk, and disk atmosphere in the HH 212 protostellar system. (a) A composite image for the HH 212 jet in different molecules, combining the images from the Very Large Telescope (McCaughrean et al. 2002) and ALMA (Lee et al. 2015).

    ESO/VLT at Cerro Paranal, with an elevation of 2,635 metres (8,645 ft) above sea level

    ESO/NRAO/NAOJ ALMA Array in Chile in the Atacama at Chajnantor plateau, at 5,000 metres

    Orange image shows the dusty envelope+disk mapped with ALMA. (b) A zoom-in to the central dusty disk. The asterisk marks the position of the protostar. A size scale of our solar system is shown in the lower right corner for comparison. (c) Atmosphere of the accretion disk detected with ALMA. In the disk atmosphere, green is for deuterated methanol, blue for methanethiol, and red for formamide. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/Lee et al.

    Every time I read about finds like this, I think about the apparent ubiquity of life’s materials — here we’re seeing organics at the earliest phases of a stellar system’s evolution. The inescapable conclusion is that the building blocks of living things are available from the outset to be incorporated in the planets that emerge from the disk. That certainly doesn’t count as a detection of life, but it does remind us of how frequently the ingredients of life manage to appear.

    In that context, Avi Loeb’s thoughts on cosmic modesty ring true. We’ve been able to extract some statistical conclusions from the Kepler instrument’s deep stare that let us infer there are more Earth-mass planets in the habitable zones of their stars in the observable universe than there are grains of sand on all the Earth’s beaches. Something to think about as you read this on your beach vacation and gaze from the sand beneath your feet to the ocean beyond.

    But are most living planets likely to occur around G-class stars like our Sun? Loeb reminds us that red dwarf stars like Proxima Centauri b and TRAPPIST-1, both of which made headlines in the past year because of their conceivably habitable planets, are long-lived, with lifetimes as long as 10 trillion years. Our Sun’s life, by comparison, is a paltry 10 billion years. Long after the Sun has turned into a white dwarf after its red giant phase, living things could still have a habitat around Proxima Centauri and TRAPPIST-1. Says Loeb:

    “I therefore advise my wealthy friends to buy real estate on Proxima b, because its value will likely go up dramatically in the future. But this also raises an important scientific question: “Is life most likely to emerge at the present cosmic time near a star like the sun?” By surveying the habitability of the universe throughout cosmic history from the birth of the first stars 30 million years after the big bang to the death of the last stars in 10 trillion years, one reaches the conclusion that unless habitability around low-mass stars is suppressed, life is most likely to exist near red dwarf stars like Proxima Centauri or TRAPPIST-1 trillions of years from now.”

    ESO Pale Red Dot project

    ESO Red Dots Campaign

    Centauris Alpha Beta Proxima 27, February 2012. Skatebiker

    The TRAPPIST-1 star, an ultracool dwarf, is orbited by seven Earth-size planets (NASA).

    ESO Belgian robotic Trappist National Telescope at Cerro La Silla, Chile interior

    ESO Belgian robotic Trappist-South National Telescope at Cerro La Silla, Chile

    But of course, one of the reasons for missions like TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite),

    NASA/TESS

    is to begin to understand the small rocky worlds around nearby red dwarfs, and to determine whether there are factors like tidal lock or stellar flaring that preclude life there. For that matter, do the planets around Proxima and TRAPPIST-1 have atmospheres? There too the answer will be forthcoming, assuming the James Webb Space Telescope is deployed successfully and can make the needed assessment of these worlds.

    NASA/ESA/CSA Webb Telescope annotated

    ” …very advanced civilizations [Loeb continues] could potentially be detectable out to the edge of the observable universe through their most powerful beacons. The evidence for an alien civilization might not be in the traditional form of radio communication signals. Rather, it could involve detecting artifacts on planets via the spectral edge from solar cells, industrial pollution of atmospheres, artificial lights or bursts of radiation from artificial beams sweeping across the sky.”

    Changes to the traditional view of SETI abound as we explore these new pathways. In any case, our technologies for making such detections have never been as advanced, and work across the exoplanetary spectrum, such as the findings of Chin-Fei Lee and colleagues, urges us on as we try to relate our own civilization to a universe in which it is hardly the center. As Loeb reminds us, we are orbiting a galaxy that itself moves at ~0.001c relative to the cosmic rest frame, one of perhaps 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe.

    Either alternative — we are alone, or we are not — changes everything about our perspective, and encourages us to deepen the search for simple life (perhaps detected in exoplanetary atmospheres through its biosignatures) as well as conceivable alien civilizations. Embracing Loeb’s cosmic modesty, we press on under the assumption that life’s emergence is not uncommon, and that refining the search to learn the answer is a civilizational imperative.

    See the full article here .

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    Tracking Research into Deep Space Exploration

    Alpha Centauri and other nearby stars seem impossible destinations not just for manned missions but even for robotic probes like Cassini or Galileo. Nonetheless, serious work on propulsion, communications, long-life electronics and spacecraft autonomy continues at NASA, ESA and many other venues, some in academia, some in private industry. The goal of reaching the stars is a distant one and the work remains low-key, but fascinating ideas continue to emerge. This site will track current research. I’ll also throw in the occasional musing about the literary and cultural implications of interstellar flight. Ultimately, the challenge may be as much philosophical as technological: to reassert the value of the long haul in a time of jittery short-term thinking.

     
  • richardmitnick 11:32 am on September 4, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Breakthrough Starshot,   

    From Astronomy: “How can we get to Proxima Centauri b?” 

    Astronomy magazine

    Astronomy.com

    September 01, 2016
    Corey S Powell

    1

    Sometimes it takes a while for the meaning of a new scientific discovery to really sink in. In the case of the planet Proxima Centauri b, announced last week, it may take decades or even centuries to fully grasp the importance of what we have found. You see, this is not just any planet: It is similar to Earth in mass, and it orbits its star in the “habitable zone,” where temperatures could potentially allow the existence of Earthlike bodies of liquid water. Proxima Centauri is not just any star, either: It is the very nearest one after the Sun, and it is a small red orb whose feeble light makes it relatively easy to study the planet close beside it.

    The science at stake here is enormous. Proxima Centauri b will surely become the archetype for understanding more distant Earth-size, and possibly Earth-like, planets all across our galaxy. The effort needed to study it will be enormous, too, however. At present the planet cannot even be glimpsed directly through the mightiest telescopes on Earth. Nevertheless, the race is on–a thrilling but maddeningly slow-motion race to bring Proxima Centauri into view, to figure out if it could (or does!) support life, even to visit it with an interstellar probe.

    That last goal is the most ambitious; some might call it the most absurd. But the discovery of Proxima Centauri b comes at a propitious time, just as a group of physicists and engineers have been thinking very realistically about how to send a space probe to another star, and to do it within a single human lifetime. The resulting Breakthrough Starshot concept would use an array of extremely high-power lasers to shoot a beam at a huge, extremely thin reflective sail. Energy from the beam would accelerate the sail (and a miniature probe attached to it) to 1/5 the speed of light, more than 1,000 times faster than anything humans have yet achieved.

    2
    Breakthrough Starshot concept would use a giant Earth-based laser array to accelerate a space sail to a significant fraction of the speed of light. Destination: Proxima Centauri b? (Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives)

    I worked with Philip Lubin of the University of California at Santa Barbara to develop a popular-level summary of how the Starshot would work. You can read about it here. If you want to dig into the more technical details of the project, Lubin also has a much longer paper posted online. This proposal envisions technology beyond what is available today, but there are no science-fiction elements in it. No warp drive, no wormholes. It is a straight extrapolation from things we know and do right now, just executed on a vastly greater scale—which is broadly similar to where the idea of going to the moon was around 1950.

    In other words, we don’t know how to build a Starshot yet, but at least we know where to start. If we invested seriously in the project—on the order of $20 billion total, more than the Large Hadron Collider but far less than the International Space Station—and got started right away, Lubin and other researchers guesstimate that we could have the technology ready in three decades. I’ll be more conservative and add another two decades to allow for all the full suite of components: In addition to the phased laser array you need the the energy-collecting sails, the probes themselves, and a “mothership” to carry them into orbit before interstellar launch. Just this week, a group of Starshot planners met at Moffett Field in California to hash out some of the details.

    Lubin suggests that the a laser-accelerated lightsail could reach 0.25c (that is, 25 percent the speed of light). The Breakthrough Starshot announcementsimilarly suggests a target velocity of 0.2c. I’ll again be conservative–within this frame of crazy optimism, that is–and say that what is really possible is closer to 0.05c, or 5 percent the speed of light. That is still roughly 10,000 miles per second, a hugely ambitious goal. At that speed, sending probes to Proxima Centauri b would take approximately 85 years.

    Notice, by the way, that I said probes. To make the Starshot work, you want to start with very small payloads, no larger than an iPhone and possibly a good deal smaller; the lighter the payload, the easier it is to accelerate to ultra-high velocity. A low-mass payload will necessarily have limited capabilities, probably a camera, a couple types of spectrometers, particle & magnetism detectors, and a laser communication system. When that probe reaches its destination, it will still be moving at 10,000 miles per second and will have no way to slow down. Your trip through the most interesting part of the Proxima Centauri system will happen very quickly, in a matter of hours, and you will have no way to steer toward planet b or any other specific targets.

    4
    Artist’s impression of what Proxima Centauri b might look like. Nobody alive today will ever know if this scene is accurate, but a fast flyby view of the planet just might be possible within a human lifetime. (Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser)

    But there is a huge upside to the Starshot concept. Almost all of the cost goes into the laser system that launches your probe. The probe itself would be a tiny, solid-state device attached to a thin sail. If the probes were mass produced, the cost per launch might be just a few hundred thousand dollars. The Breakthrough Starshot team therefore envisions launching not one, but a swarm of thousands. Some of those probes would fail at launch; some would fail along the way; some would miss Proxima Centauri, or not pass close enough to interesting targets to get a good look. But it doesn’t matter; a 99 percent failure rate would still be a tremendous success. If you launch 1,000 probes, you need only a dozen to survive in order to achieve one of the most amazing missions of exploration in human history.

    If you tally my numbers, you’ll see that I envision the first probes reaching Proxima Centauri in about 135 years (and then you have to allow another 4.3 years for their signal to get back home). Using much more aggressive assumptions, Lubin suggests that we could get start receiving our first up-close reports on Proxima Centauri b around 2070. Either way it is a very long wait time to make sense of a new discovery, and that assumes both a sustained, focused effort and the successful resolution of a vast number of technical challenges.

    Fortunately, this race passes a lot of milestones that are much closer and easier to reach. Even in its early stages, laser-sail technology would be useful for high-speed exploration through the solar system, or for deflecting and maneuvering asteroids. More to the point, there is a whole other race to Proxima Centauri–one that does not require high-power lasers and interstellar travel, one that is underway right now. I’ll talk more about that in my next post.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 6:47 am on May 27, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Breakthrough Starshot, ,   

    From AAAS: “Q&A: Web billionaire describes his plan to shoot for the stars” 

    AAAS

    AAAS

    May. 26, 2016
    Zeeya Merali

    1
    Breakthrough Starshot lasers. Breakthrough Starshot will require lasers many times more powerful than any existing today.
    Breakthrough Initiatives

    Last month, Russian internet billionaire Yuri Milner announced plans to send thousands of tiny spacecraft to visit Alpha Centauri, the closest star system at 4.4 light-years from Earth. Dubbed Breakthrough Starshot, the mission aims to take close-up images and collect data from any potentially habitable planets there.

    Centauris Alpha Beta Proxima 27, February 2012. Skatebiker
    Centauris Alpha Beta Proxima 27, February 2012. Skatebiker

    In order to cover the vast distance—41 trillion kilometers—in a reasonable time, the proposed spacecraft will each weigh less than a gram. Once in space, they will unfurl lightweight sails to catch laser beams shot from Earth, accelerating to one-fifth the speed of light under light pressure. Launch could be 30 years off, and the trip to Alpha Centauri would take a further 2 decades.

    Milner, who also supports the multimillion-dollar Breakthrough Prizes and Breakthrough Listen, a search for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, has committed $100 million to this venture. But Breakthrough Starshot has polarized opinion: Some are enthused by its ambition, whereas others say it is costly and unnecessary, isn’t feasible, or is downright dangerous. Milner spoke with Science by phone about the challenges facing the project and how he answers his critics. His responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

    Q: How did your interest in space travel and in this mission to Alpha Centauri come about?

    A: I was named Yuri after Yuri Gagarin because I was born the same year the Russian cosmonaut was launched on the first manned space flight. So I’ve carried this message about space travel in my name my whole life!

    Breakthrough Starshot came from a small working group we put together to devise a practical space project to a neighboring star system that could achieve results within the lifetime of a generation. They considered various propulsion mechanisms for interstellar travel—including fusion engines and matter-antimatter propulsion—and concluded that the sail configuration is the most feasible in a reasonable time frame.

    The idea of using spacecraft with solar-powered sails is actually very old, but until recently it was purely theoretical. Over the past 20 years there has been significant progress in microelectronics, nanomaterials, and laser technology that means we can now have a sensible conversation about making a gram-scale starship and accelerating it to 20% of the speed of light.

    2
    Starstruck: Yuri Milner. Breakthrough Initiatives

    Q: You’ve contributed $100 million dollars, but the final project could cost $10 billion. Where will this extra money come from?

    A: We’ve been open from day one that this is not something you can build in a garage and no one person can finance this machine. If this is going to happen, I envisage this as something that will need international collaboration on a financial scale comparable to CERN [the particle physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland].

    The seed money covers the first 5 to 10 years’ research and development phase, and within that time we should know if the challenges the project faces can be overcome or if they are insurmountable. The second phase will be to build a prototype and I think that can be financed by private investors, too. The final machine will need international backing.

    Q: Might the money be better spent on a new planet-hunting telescope?

    A: We’re actually in negotiations to spend some of the money to increase the capability of some ground-based telescopes to take a direct image of possible planets around Alpha Centauri. That would use existing infrastructure and we hope to announce it soon. This is important because we don’t even know with any degree of certainty if there are potentially habitable planets in the Alpha Centauri system to target with Breakthrough Starshot.

    But there is no substitute for a flyby and taking close-up images. This would be the equivalent of the New Horizons mission to Pluto.

    NASA/New Horizons spacecraft
    NASA/New Horizons spacecraft

    To get an equal quality image with a ground or near-Earth telescope, you would need a telescope on the scale of a few hundred kilometers and that’s not a small endeavor.

    Q: Even if the project’s giant lasers can be built, what about the damage they could potentially cause to the environment or their misuse as a weapon?

    A: Laser technology is following its own Moore’s law trajectory, so in a couple of decades’ time we think laser power will have increased sufficiently and such lasers will not be prohibitively expensive. But from the outset we identified that there must be some form of global consensus on its use. It may be that we have the technological capability but the project stalls because there is no agreement about the governance of such a machine.

    3
    The 4LGSF is part of the Adaptive Optics Facility on Unit Telescope 4 of the VLT.

    Q: Won’t laser beams fired through the atmosphere lose power through dispersion? Wouldn’t a space-based array be better?

    A: That would increase the cost 100 times and push the mission back a few hundred years. So for a space-based system, let’s just stop talking now. It’s not going to happen in our lifetime. A space-based laser also poses more serious policy issues because it could be pointed at Earth and is more difficult to control.

    The power from Earth-based lasers will not be dramatically different. The basic principle would be to utilize the adaptive optics already used by ground-based telescopes to deal with the challenges of the distortion of light passing through the atmosphere.

    Q: Critics have warned that the powerful laser beam could set the tiny craft spinning out of control or destroy the fragile sails. Have you considered such scenarios?

    A: Our experts have been looking into this and now think that a spinning craft may actually be more stable than a nonspinning one. But we don’t know whether the sails will melt when the laser hits them or what the craft will meet in interstellar space. We’ve identified more than 20 technological challenges to the successful completion of this project. More work is needed and that’s what the research phase is for.

    Q: Can you miniaturize the sensors, imaging, and signaling equipment to fit on such a small craft?

    A: We have carried out pretty detailed calculations that show we can shrink down the imaging equipment and sensors, even today. And surprisingly, to send a signal over trillions of miles you only need a small laser on board, powered by a watt-scale battery, and that can be made gram-scale. The sail would then be used as a dish to help transmit the signal, while the laser array on Earth would act as a receiver. So miniaturization of nanocraft is probably the least of the problems—the sails and the lasers are bigger obstacles.

    Q: Are you worried about sustaining a workforce for such a long-term project?

    A: It took two or three hundred years to build some cathedrals, but people did not lose interest. We have proven that we can focus on long term scientific projects, too: 2016 will be remembered as the year we detected gravitational waves but the LIGO experiment took 50 years; CERN is another example of experiments stretching over decades. This is the exciting next stage of space exploration being ignited and the fire will keep burning.

    Caltech/MIT Advanced aLigo detector in Livingston, LA, USA
    Caltech/MIT Advanced aLigo detector in Livingston, LA, USA

    CERN/LHC Map
    CERN LHC Grand Tunnel
    CERN LHC particles
    LHC at CERN

    Q: You have identified many ways this project might fail. Are you worried that your investment might ultimately go to waste?

    A: Honestly, we are a very lucky generation because we are the first that could pull this off and, if we do, it will be incredible. But if not, we have promised to keep all the results of our research open to the public. One day our civilization will make use of it. It is human nature to explore the world around us and I don’t think that curiosity will ever go away.

    See the full article here .

    The American Association for the Advancement of Science is an international non-profit organization dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of all people.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.
    STEM Icon
    Stem Education Coalition

     
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