If I may, I’d like to take a moment to talk about science fact today rather than science fiction.
On the afternoon of April 12, I watched a press conference with Dr. Stephen Hawking (theoretical physicist), Yuri Milner (entrepreneur), Dr. Mae Jemison (astronaut) and Dr. Avi Loeb (astrophysicist), among others, detailing a new project: Breakthrough Starshot.
The Breakthrough Initiatives as a whole, founded by Milner and his wife, are meant to answer several questions:
- Are we alone?
- Are there other intelligent life forms out there in the universe?
- Can we travel to the stars?
The latest initiative is meant to answer that last question. The goal of Breakthrough Starshot, according to the press conference and their website, is to “demonstrate proof of concept for a new technology, enabling ultra-light unmanned space flight at 20% the speed of light.”
That’s really fast. The initiative aims to conduct the research necessary to design a nanocraft, a teeny tiny spacecraft that weighs mere grams, that will be connected to a sail of sorts a few meters wide and a few atoms thick. Think of a sailboat, except super mini teeny tiny. Aboard the craft we’ll find cameras, thrusters, navigation equipment, you name it.
The goal in building these ultra-light, bite-sized spacecraft is to conduct a mission to our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, which is four light years away (meaning it would take the nanocraft 20 years to get there travelling at 20% the speed of light). Currently, the New Horizons probe is the fastest probe ever sent out into the universe, but it would take that probe more than 70,000 years to get to Alpha Centauri. Hence the need for extremely lightweight equipment that can achieve such high speeds.
How would the nanocraft achieve 20% the speed of light? The initiative is planning for a laser beam to propel the spacecraft to that speed up and out of the Earth’s atmosphere. Afterwards, light from the sun (photons) would continue to propel the spacecraft.
It could be right out of a science fiction novel, except this is all actually possible. Hence the $100 million budget. Those involved in the project, foremost Milner, the benefactor, and Hawking and Loeb, as well as the engineers and scientists with whom they work, know that though much of this technology does not yet exist, it is possible to create. They just need some time, money, and a lot of elbow grease.
Among the problems that must be solved in order to actually create a prototype of such a nanocraft are:
- If you blast a nanocraft with a laser beam to get it out into space, how do you prevent vaporizing said nanocraft with said laser beam?
- If the nanocraft reaches Alpha Centauri, how will it be able to beam images back to Earth? There’s a lot of distance between us and Alpha Centauri, and I’m sure the team will be hoping for images that consist of more than fuzzy, incoherent blobs.
- How do you prevent such nanocraft from getting smashed to smithereens by space debris? (The main answer to this question, as far as I can tell, is to send one spacecraft per day into space, so it won’t matter if a few get destroyed along the way.)
- How can we ensure that these nanocraft will be able to survive the journey to Alpha Centauri? (Similar to previous question.)
Okay, so they have to figure out a few things first, but the important thing here is that they are trying. The goal is for all of this to occur within our lifetime.
Why This Is Important
Cool science and breakthroughs aside, one of the most important and poignant points of this mission as I see it is the tremendous collaboration of minds that will be necessary in order to accomplish this feat. It’s a point that was brought up at the press conference as well. Interstellar travel cannot be accomplished by one person alone; there is too much brain effort needed. I couldn’t tell you how many people in total will be needed for this project, but I wouldn’t be surprised if hundreds of thousands of people ended up working on this in some capacity. Maybe even more.
And more than interstellar travel alone, the collaboration itself will really show us who we are, what we’re made of, and what we can accomplish when we work together.
One thing I’ve noticed in Western society, and in fact, what our society is based on, is the rise of the individual. Other cultures are not so individualistic as we are. Now, I’m all for individualism; I’m certainly not saying it’s a bad thing nor that we should all become the Borg. What I am saying is that it might be at least part of the reason an insidious, jaded, cynical tone of voice has pervaded our society.
Just think of it on the micro scale: when you and a bunch of your friends are looking forward to that camping trip/board game party/escape game on the weekend, you tend to feel a collective sense of excitement. It’s great to have something to look forward to. That inner excitement radiates positive vibes outwards. So you feel good, you feel optimistic, you feel so darn happy that it’s Friday afternoon and all the possibilities of the weekend are open before you.
What if we could reproduce that collective excitement on a macro scale?
For me, that’s what Breakthrough Starshot is really about. Sure, it’s about the final frontier (which is important all by itself), but just as importantly, it’s about working together to create a sense of collective excitement that will allow us to realize that when we all look up at the stars, we really are one.
If you’re interested in reading more about this initiative, here are some links I found useful: