April 12, 2016

A Visionary Project Aims for Alpha Centauri, a Star 4.37 Light-Years Away

Filed under: Uncategorized — bferrari @ 1:49 pm

Can you fly an iPhone to the stars?

In an attempt to leapfrog the planets and vault into the interstellar age, a bevy of scientists and other luminaries from Silicon Valley and beyond, led by Yuri Milner, the Russian philanthropist and Internet entrepreneur, announced a plan on Tuesday to send a fleet of robots no bigger than iPhones to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system, 4.37 light-years away.

If it all worked out — a cosmically big “if” that would occur decades and perhaps $10 billion from now — a rocket would deliver a “mother ship” carrying a thousand or so small probes to space. Once in orbit, the probes would unfold thin sails and then, propelled by powerful laser beams fromEarth, set off one by one like a flock of migrating butterflies across the universe.

Within two minutes, the probes would be more than 600,000 miles from home — as far as the lasers can maintain a tight beam — and moving at a fifth of the speed of light. But it would still take 20 years for them to get to Alpha Centauri. Those that survived would zip past the stars, making measurements and beaming pictures back to Earth.

Much of this plan is probably half a lifetime away. Mr. Milner and his colleagues estimate that it could take 20 years to get the mission off the ground and into the heavens, 20 years to get to Alpha Centauri and another four years for the word from outer space to come home. And there is still the matter of attracting billions of dollars to pay for it.

Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to Earth’s solar system. An effort led by the billionaire Yuri Milner aims to send a fleet of small probes there. (European Southern Observatory)

Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to Earth’s solar system. An effort led by the billionaire Yuri Milner aims to send a fleet of small probes there. (European Southern Observatory)

“I think you and I will be happy to see the launch,” Mr. Milner, 54, said in an interview, adding that progress in medicine and longevity would determine whether he would live to see the results.

“We came to the conclusion it can be done: interstellar travel,” Mr. Milner said. He announced the project, called Breakthrough Starshot, in a news conference in New York on Tuesday, 55 years after Yuri Gagarin — for whom Mr. Milner is named — became the first human in space.

In a statement released by Breakthrough Starshot, the English cosmologist and author Stephen Hawking said: “Earth is a beautiful place, but it might not last forever. Sooner or later we must look to the stars.”

Dr. Hawking is one of three members of the board of directors for the mission, along with Mr. Milner and Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder.

The project will be directed by Pete Worden, a former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center and the chairman of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation, which Mr. Milner founded and of which the new venture is an offshoot. He has a prominent cast of advisers, including the Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb as chairman; the British astronomer royal Martin Rees; the Nobel Prize-winning astronomer Saul Perlmutter, of the University of California, Berkeley; Ann Druyan, producer of the TV show “Cosmos” and widow of Carl Sagan; and the mathematician and author Freeman Dyson, of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.

“There are about 20 key challenges we are asking the world’s scientific experts to help us with — and we are willing to financially support their work,” Dr. Worden said in an email.

A detailed technical description of the project will appear on the project’s website.

Estimating that the project could cost $5 billion to $10 billion, Mr. Milner is initially investing $100 million for research and development. He said he was hoping to lure other investors, especially from international sources.

Most of that money would go toward a giant laser array, which could be used to repeatedly send probes toward any star (as long as the senders were not looking for return mail anytime soon) or around the solar system, perhaps to fly through the ice plumes of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, which might contain microbes — tiny forms of life.

In a sense, the start of this space project reflects the make-it-break-it mode of Silicon Valley. Rather than send one big, expensive spacecraft on a journey of years, send thousands of cheap ones. If some break or collide with space junk, others can take their place.

Interstellar travel is a daunting and humbling notion. Alpha Centauri is an alluring target for such a trip: It is the closest star system to our own, and there might be planets in the system. The system consists of three stars: Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B, sunlike stars that circle each other, and Proxima Centauri, which may be circling the other two. In recent years, astronomers have amassed data suggesting the possibility of an Earth-size planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B.

It would take Voyager 1, humanity’s most distant space probe, more than 70,000 years to reach Alpha Centauri if it were headed in that direction, which it is not.

Over the years, a variety of propulsion schemes have been hatched to cross the void more quickly. In 1962, shortly after lasers had been invented, Robert Forward, a physicist and science fiction author, suggested that they could be used to push sails in space.

In 2011, Darpa, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, got into the act with 100 Year Starship, a contest to develop a business plan for interstellar travel.

By all accounts, Mr. Milner was initially skeptical of an interstellar probe.

But three trends seemingly unrelated to space travel — advances in nanotechnology and lasers and the relentless march of Moore’s Law, making circuits ever smaller and more powerful — have converged in a surprising way.

It is now possible to fit the entire probe with computers, cameras and electrical power, a package with a mass of only one gram, a thirtieth of an ounce.

That, Dr. Loeb said, is about what the guts of an iPhone, stripped of its packaging and displays, amount to.


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