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…


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.

Sciency Words: The Chronological Protection Conjecture

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about all that weird terminology scientists like to use.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:


English theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking had a lot to say about time travel.  There are plenty of Hawking quotes out there that seem to suggest that time travel is possible, or at least that it’s not totally impossible.  This seems odd to me, because when you read Hawking’s actual research, he is about as anti-time travel as a physicist can get.

As we discussed in last week’s episode of Sciency Words, Einstein’s theory of general relativity would apparently allow time travel to occur.  Relativity permits space-time to twist around itself into something called a “closed timelike curve.”  Hawking could not allow that to stand, and in 1991 he published this paper introducing something he named the “chronological protection conjecture.”

Hawking summarized his conjecture as follows: “The laws of physics do not allow the appearance of closed timelike curves.”  If a closed timelike curve ever did start to form, Hawking goes on to explain, then some other physical law—vacuum polarization, repulsive gravity, quantum effects—would get in the way, causing the closed timelike curve to die before it was ever truly born.

Based on my read of Hawking’s paper, it sounds like a closed timelike curve might (might!) still be possible inside a black hole.  But if you’re a time traveler trapped inside a black hole, you can’t do much to interfere with the course of history, can you?  Thus, regardless of what may or may not be happening inside black holes, the rest of the universe is still safe from time travel paradoxes.

So if Hawking’s physics is so adamantly against closed timelike curves, why did Hawking make so many public statements teasing us with the possibility of time travel?  Well, Hawking was a big fan of science fiction, and he seems to have loved many of the usual Sci-Fi tropes, including time travel.  The laws of physics may not allow for time travel, according to Hawking, but stories about time travel are still fun.  Maybe Hawking didn’t want to take that fun away from us.

Speaking of time travel, are you a fan of time travel adventure stories?  The kinds of stories you might see on Doctor Who or The Twilight Zone?  Then please check out my new book, The Medusa Effect: A Tomorrow News Network Novella, featuring time traveling news reporter Talie Tappler and her cyborg cameraman, Mr. Cognis.

Higgs Party!

Yesterday, July 4th, scientists at CERN announced they had discovered the Higgs boson.  This boson, sometimes referred to as the “God Particle” or the “God Damn Particle” because it was so damn hard to find, was pure theory until yesterday.  The standard model of quantum physics predicted it would exist, but many were skeptical about it.  Even the esteemed Stephen Hawking once offered a bet that it would never be found.

The Higgs boson is part of a larger energy field called the Higgs field, which gives mass to all matter in the universe.  The Higgs field surrounds us and penetrates us… it binds the galaxy together… in other words, scientists have discovered the Force.  Now we just have to learn how to manipulate it with our minds.

Since July 4th is Independence Day here in the United States, I was too busy celebrating America to also celebrate the new particle, so I’ll celebrate today instead.  I’ve gone so far as to buy the Higgs boson a cake.  It seems appropriate.  Since cake is known to add lots of mass to people, surely it contains a great many Higgs bosons.

How are you celebrating the Higgs boson discovery?