CAN RESEARCH TRAVEL OUT TO THE STARS?  YURI MILNER SAYS “YES, LET’S GO!”   

 

The Breakthrough Starshot is a fantastic research project! (http://dr-monsrs.net)
The Breakthrough Starshot is a most fantastic research project! (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

One of the 3 largest general problems in modern science is “money” (see:  “Introduction to Money in Modern Scientific Research” ).  Some individual philanthropists with billions of dollars recently are greatly advancing science and benefiting society via substantial donations to start new research institutes, research support programs, science initiatives, and science megaprizes.  By providing the very large funding needed for projects in big science, they enable doing what others only can dream about; some of their new ideas are daring and creative explorations, while others try to leap over the normal slow pace of scientific research.

This article looks at a very new and dramatic space project, the Breakthrough Starshot, just announced as an intensive attempt to develop and test new mechanisms for interstellar travel (see 2 short videos at: http://www.space.com/32546-interstellar-spaceflight-stephen-hawking-project-starshot.html ).  Its ultimate goal is to investigate whether life exists on planets outside our solar system.  This novel exploratory project is part of the Breakthrough Initiatives [1] featuring new ideas for scientific research.

Background on the 3 directors of Breakthrough Starshot! [1-5]

Yuri Milner is a financial investor, internet entrepreneur, physicist, and science philanthropist, who has homes both in Russia and California.  He acquired his very large fortune by working and investing in international internet ventures, and is one of the founders of the Breakthrough Prizes  (see:  “New Multimillion Megaprizes for Science, Part II” ).  His generous sponsorship is the basis for the Breakthrough Starshot project.

Stephen Hawking is a world-renowned theoretical physicist and cosmologist, who is a  Professor and Director of Research at the University of Cambridge in the U.K.  He provides expert insight into the many challenges faced by the Breakthrough Starshot research project.

Mark Zuckerberg is well-known as the founder and CEO of the social media website, Facebook.  He is one of the several major donors supporting the Breakthrough Prizes.

What exactly is the goal of the Breakthrough Starshot research project?  [1-5]

This new research effort was developed by a small working group of individuals experienced with new technology, innovative designs for research, and creative ideas for advancing space science.  Its ultimate purpose is to learn if some sort of life exists on planets circling nearby stars; Hawking and other scientists postulate that many of the hundreds of newly discovered exoplanets must harbor some forms of life.

This project specifically aims to investigate whether new technologies can propel extremely small spacecraft to nearby stars using power transmitted by very high energy laser arrays on Earth.  Initially, he minute light-weight space probes will look at unknown planets circling the star closest to our own Sun, Alpha Centauri.  As part of the engineering and testing, subsidiary probes will be launched to study planets and their moons within our solar system.

How will this challenging project be conducted?  [1-5]

A host of gigantic technological and engineering problems must be solved in order to accomplish the goals of Breakthrough Starshot.  Alpha Centauri is 4.37 light years (i.e., 41 trillion kilometers) away from Earth.  Launching the novel spacecraft is expected to be ready about 30 years from now; during this time, 3 phases of work will be conducted: (1) all aspects of design and engineering, (2) construction and testing of prototypes for the system of laser arrays and the minute spacecraft, and (3) final assembly and launching of fleets of these mass-produced space probes (e.g., hundreds or thousands).  Each spacecraft will be the size of a large postage stamp, weigh about one gram, and carry no fuel or crew.  By traveling at 20% of the speed of light, their journey to Alpha Centauri will take some 20 years!

Electronics and instrumentation in the nanoscale will be used to construct the nanospacecraft.  Each will have a special “space sail” that unfolds in space to collect energy beamed by arrays of very high power lasers on Earth; the transmitted energy pushes their propulsion.  Close-up images and data will be transmitted back to Earth for analysis.  The new research data acquired will exceed what can be gathered by advanced telescopes located on Earth.

Are any big problems foreseen for this new research project?  [1-5]

Yuri Milner is donating $100,000,000 to cover expenses for the first 5-10 years of initial research and development (R&D) work.  By providing this private funding, Milner forcefully gets everything started and immediately neutralizes the usual objections to spending oodles of taxpayers’ money to conduct this science-fiction-type research project!  He foresees that collaborative international sources will provide the many billions of dollars needed for later completion of the project; that gigantic sum equals the multibillion dollars from multiple international sources already used to establish new synchrotron facilities, construct very large new telescopes, and launch a new space telescope (see:  “The New James Webb Space Telescope: Big Science Requires Big Money and Big Time, But Should Produce Big Results!” ).  Global Industry is another possible source of the many billions needed.

Individual scientists already have been proposing and speculating about possible means for interstellar travel.  The many hundreds of research workers (i.e., scientists, engineers, industrial producers, managers, technicians, etc.) needed to conduct the extensive R&D effort for the Starshot project certainly are available.  This enterprise could take place within some organization similar to NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), but kept outside of governmental operations.

Many design features for the Breakthrough Starshot are both novel and untested, but seem to be within the present range of engineering and developing technology.  The high power laser systems do not yet exist, but military development of laser weapons already is progressing.  The ultraminiature spacecraft also do not yet exist, but science and engineering now are expanding development of nano-cameras, nano-computers, nano-electronics, etc., so their innovative design should be doable.  Milner, Hawking, and other scientists see this amazing conceptual framework as being realistically possible.

Concluding remarks! 

To be sure, as with all truly innovative ideas, many problems will arise.  At present, none of those seem to be insurmountable.  The possibility of reaching the project goal is truly exciting, and the results will be utterly meaningful for our own planet.

 

 

[1]  Breakthrough Initiatives, 2016a.  About Breakthrough Initiatives.  Available on the internet at:  http://breakthroughinitiatives.org/About .

[2]  Breakthrough Initiatives, 2016b.  Internet investor and science philanthropist Yuri Milner physicist Stephen Hawking announce Breakthrough Starshot project to develop 100 million mile per hour mission to the stars within a generation.  Available on the internet at:  http://breakthroughinitiatives.org/News/4 .

[3]  Merali, Z., 2016.  Q&A: Web billionaire describes his plan to shoot for the stars.  Science .  Available on the internet at:  http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/05/qa-web-billionaire-describes-his-plan-shoot-stars .

[4]  Overbye, D., 2016.  Reaching for the stars, across 4.37 light-years.  The New York Times, April 13, 2016, page A12.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/13/science/alpha-centauri-breakthrough-starshot-yuri-milner-stephen-hawking.html?_r=1 .

[5]  Choi, C.Q., 2016.  Three questions about Breakthrough Starshot.  The enormously ambitious mission faces a few challenges.  Popular Science, April 27, 2016.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.popsci.com/three-questions-for-breakthrough-starshot .

 

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