Our Place in Space: Breakthrough Starshot

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…

BREAKTHROUGH STARSHOT

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.

Get it?  Because the C.E.O. of Facebook is involved in this project!

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.

16 thoughts on “Our Place in Space: Breakthrough Starshot

  1. I think Breakthrough Starshot, with its miniature spacecraft, is moving in the right direction. The big drawback to it is it doesn’t have any mechanism for the craft to slow down, so everything has to be learned during the few hours it’s speeding through the destination system. And its small size means very low transmitting power, so it would take decades to transmit the data back from the ever more distant probe.

    The good thing about gram sized microscopic craft though, is that the outrageous mass ratios of various propulsion techniques seem like they become more plausible. The trick is sending something with enough intelligence to bootstrap an infrastructure once it gets there. But I imagine that topic is somewhere on your list this month.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve been wondering about the transmitter myself. There’s a lot of background radiation in space, which would interfere with the quality of the transmission, I’d think. But I don’t know.

      I’m planning to do more research on this topic, so maybe I’ll find out what their plan is for that. That’ll have to wait until after the A to Z Challenge is over, though.

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    1. Intriguing idea! Sounds like something humans in the distant future might try to do. We’d probably want to do some preliminary investigations first, though, to make sure we’re not seeding life on a planet where life already exists.

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  2. Another cool one. I have so many questions about outer space, like everyone else, and I have little dreams where we get to find out one day. I’m still chuffed about the JWT let alone little probes to Proxima Centauri. Probably not in my ilfetime, alas.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the Webb Telescope is a perfect example of how long it takes to get stuff done with space exploration. That thing launched over a decade behind schedule. We can do a lot in outer space, things always seem to take longer than expected.

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  3. I guess the idea being that if you set the bar high, even if you fall short, it’ll still be quite the achievement. Wasn’t that the thought behind setting such a challenging schedule for the Apollo project? Or maybe I’m making rash assumptions 😉

    Debs visiting this year from
    Debs Carey-NLP Coach

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Was that part of the thinking in the Apollo project? Makes sense, I just hadn’t heard that before. It’s definitely part of Elon Musk’s thinking now, based on some of the things he’s writen and/or said.

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  4. This idea and technology sound fascinating. I have never thought about how humans might want to go beyond the immediate neighbours of earth, hence this possibility of a way to go to a different galaxy expands my imagination. Interesting post as always

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We can barely get to another planet right now. It is wild to think about going to another star system. But people are working on the problem. Someday it’ll happen. Not anytime soon, but someday, I’m sure it’ll happen.

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