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Thursday 14 April 2016

Starships within thirty years? Maybe...

One piece of news has been dominating the thoughts of space geeks this week: The announcement of a $100,000 proof-of-concept effort on building a starship, called 'Breakthrough Starshot'. The man behind it, Yuri Milner, is a physicist and a billionaire (with a track record for setting up efforts to encourage ground breaking science), and has received the support of Mark Zuckerberg, and a little known physicist called Stephen Hawking, for the project.

One of these guys, apparently...
First, let's be clear: Actually building and flying this thing would likely cost tens of billions at least. The money Milner has donated represents an an unprecedented push towards interstellar travel, but all it's doing is getting the ball rolling - governments, or other private investors, would definitely be needed to see this thing to fruition. And, realistically, we're talking decades of development to get to the point were we can start building it - assuming strong funding and support all the way.
But... if it went all the way, what shape might it take? The Starship Enterprise it won't be: The study will be on unmanned probe simply flying through the alpha centauri star system. Utilising the bleeding edge in lightweight technology it would weigh only grams, and would be accelerated up to 60,000 km/second (that's roughly warp factor 0.2, Trek fans) by a laser boosted light sail. It would take twenty years to get to the alpha centauri star system, and would hammer through the whole place in a matter of hours.
I'm a classic Enterprise kinda guy, although what we're talking about here is a fair bit smaller.
Now, just from the top of my head, I can see that there are huge engineering challenges:
  • Lightsails have flown before, but never a laser boosted one, and this would be pushing the technology to it's theoretical limits.
  • The probe's tiny size makes sending data back to Earth a huge, huge challenge - there may be ways around that, but it won't be easy.
  • The sail will need to be almost perfectly reflective, and very, very, heatproof - it's essentially going to be riding the beam of a huge industrial cutting laser.
  • Steering the sail, and keeping it stable under the beam's pressure is also going to be a minor engineering miracle.
  • At these sort of speeds even hitting a dust particle could destroy a vessel - the probe will need the equivalent of a space going snow plough, as interstellar dust is sparse... but not that sparse.
Above: JAXA's IKAROS lightsail spacecraft, in flight.
Speaking to Centauri Dreams (here) Milner himself acknowledged that the obstacles are huge. But he doesn't see any of them as insurmountable.
And here's the shocker: Professional space geeks (the kind that actually have jobs in the space industry) mostly seem to agree with Milner: The problems will be incredibly, stunningly, hard to crack yes.... but they're not uncrackable.
That being said... A lot of space industry people, while admitting it's not impossible, would rather see the money go towards something more realistic, something certain lead to a real-world project. They (correctly) point out that just to get a workable design will need tons of extra funding and a multi-decade commitment. Next generation space telescopes are often pointed to as being potentially more useful to exploration.
Even so, many engineers and scientists really think we really might be able to build a starship within a generation - albeit one that is to the Millennium Falcon what 'I can cook' is to 'Masterchef: The Professionals'.
Yeah... this show's still a bit ahead of my cooking skills, to be honest...
There's inferred but increasingly solid evidence of a ninth planet in a distant reach of our solar system - even if Breakthrough Starshot falls short, this might be a worthy fall back goal for the technological leaps that could well com from it. So, succeed or fail, this could well be a historic announcement!
Elsewhere in the Universe:
Bigelow aerospace has announced plans, in sort-of-partnership with ULA to launch the first private commercial space station by 2020. This seems to have been spurred on b the fact that their first prototype inflatable manned module i on its way to become part of the ISS, following the historic first launch-and-landing of SpaceX's re-usable Falcon 9 rocket. A smidgen of cynicism is called for here perhaps, although Bigelow certainly ave the technological chops and determination - check out this article on for why.
Two interesting videos:
The effects of a year in space:

What are the chances we live in a simulation?


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