Hello, friends! Welcome to Our Place in Space: A to Z! For this year’s A to Z Challenge, I’ll be taking you on a partly imaginative and highly optimistic tour of humanity’s future in outer space. If you don’t know what the A to Z Challenge is, click here to learn more. In today’s post, B is for…
So it’s several hundred years into the future. Human civilization has spread out across the Solar System. Large numbers of people are living on the Moon and Mars. We even have successful colonies on Venus and Mercury (more on that later this month) and a few smaller settlements on the various moons of the outer Solar System. Does this mean we’re done exploring space? Heck no! There’s still plenty more outer space stuff to explore!
Just as NASA scientists here in the 21st Century send robotic space probes to our neighboring planets, scientists in the future will be keen to send robotic probes out to neighboring star systems. And the model for a robotic mission to another star system already exists. In 2016, venture capitalist Yuri Milner, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, and Facebook C.E.O. Mark Zuckerberg announced funding for a new research project called Breakthrough Starshot.
The idea is to build a swarm of teeny-tiny space probes, use high energy laser pulses to accelerate these probes straight out of the Solar System, and then sit back and wait for our probe swarm to transmit data back from another star system. Specifically, Breakthrough Starshot wants to visit Proxima Centauri, the nearest star system to our own. Proxima Centauri is known to have at least one planet, an Earth-sized world known as Proxima b.
Could we actually build space probes that small? Well, computer chips are pretty gosh darn small at this point, and they keep getting smaller. So do cameras and other advanced electronic devices. So yeah, this part of Breakthrough Starshot’s plan seems plausible enough.
What about that whole high energy laser pulse thing? That part does seem more speculative to me, but experiments in Earth orbit have shown that light sail technology does work. Just as the sail on a sailboat catches the wind, a light sail can catch light and use that light-pressure to propel a spacecraft through space. A high energy laser aimed at a light-sail-equipped space probe… yeah, that sounds plausible to me, too.
Of course, a lot could go wrong with a space probe traveling through interstellar space. That’s why we’d send a swarm of these things, rather than just one. Most of the probes probably won’t make it to Proxima b, but the few that do survive the trip will send us some spectacular images and data.
Personally, I don’t like seeing headlines predicting that Breakthrough Starshot will be launching by such and such date (typically, a date in the late 2020’s or early 2030’s). Breakthrough Starshot does seem to be founded on good science. It’s the kind of program that really could work, someday. But is it going to happen in the next ten to fifteen years? No, I don’t think so. That seems overoptimistic, in my opinion.
In the more distant future, however, Breakthrough Starshot (or a program very much like it) absolutely could happen. This sort of thing could definitely work. And looking ever further into the future, to a time when humans have thoroughly explored our own Solar System, the idea of sending swarms of microchip space probes to neighboring star systems might become routine.
Want to Learn More?
Click here to visit Breakthrough Starshot’s website. They’ve got lots of information and videos explaining how they intend to get to Proxima b.
I’d also recommend clicking here to see a list of challenges that the Breakthrough Starshot team know they will need to overcome in order to make their plan work.
And for those of you who are looking for some heavier reading, click here to read “A Roadmap to Interstellar Flight,” a scientific paper that essentially serves as Breakthrough Starshot’s founding document.