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Space Science Technology

Hawking Backs $100 Million Interstellar Travel Project to Send 'Nano-Craft' To Nearest Star 381

At a press conference on Tuesday, Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner, cosmologist Stephen Hawking and a group of scientists and philanthropists announced a $100 million research program to send robotic probes to nearby stars within a generation. The group believes that using a nano-spacecraft propelled by lasers, they will be able to reach Alpha Centauri in just over 20 years after launch. The nearest star system is 40 trillion km away, which using current technology would take about 30,000 years to reach there. The aforementioned group said that thanks to their research and development, they might be able to make a spacecraft that could cut down the duration to 30 years. Reuters reports: Tuesday's announcement, made with cosmologist Stephen Hawking, comes less than a year after the announcement of Breakthrough Listen. That decade-long, $100 million project, also backed by Milner, monitors radio signals for signs of intelligent life across the universe. Breakthrough Starshot involves deploying small light-propelled vehicles to carry equipment like cameras and communication equipment. Scientists hope the vehicles, known as nano-craft, will eventually fly at 20 percent of the speed of light, more than a thousand times faster than today's spacecraft. "The thing would look like the chip from your cell phone with this very thin gauzy light sail," said Pete Worden, the former director of NASA's Ames Research Center, who is leading the project. "It would be something like 10, 12 feet across."The Atlantic has just published an in-depth report on this, also explaining how this project came to being. You can also watch the live stream of the press conference.
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Hawking Backs $100 Million Interstellar Travel Project to Send 'Nano-Craft' To Nearest Star

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  • Interesting, but.. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by wbr1 ( 2538558 ) on Tuesday April 12, 2016 @11:44AM (#51892921)
    I love the idea. However with a device that small, how do we get a signal back? It will not be able to generate a strong radio or light signal to send back. Would we be able to use existing radio telescopes to pick it up, or would we need better receiving infrastructure?
    • However with a device that small, how do we get a signal back? It will not be able to generate a strong radio or light signal to send back.

      Nevermind the fact that it's almost a 9 year round trip from sending a signal to receiving a reply when it arrives at its destination. Commands will have to be sent over 4 years before they're received and executed by the craft, so this thing will have to be preprogrammed for its entire mission before it even gets out of the solar system. I don't see how that can go wrong :)

      • by tylersoze ( 789256 ) on Tuesday April 12, 2016 @11:59AM (#51893061)

        There wouldn't really be any commands to execute, all they are doing is basically shooting the probes towards Alpha Centauri.There wouldn't be anyway for them to manuever, it's not like they'd be able to slow down and get into orbit.

      • No, it's more like 4 years or so, not 9. Why do you think a round-trip is necessary? The point of this thing is to go out there, collect data, and then beam it back here, just like the New Horizons probe to Pluto. It doesn't have to wait to receive commands to send data, it can send any time it wants to.

        It should be obvious that with that much of a time-lag, there's no way to make this a remotely-operated vehicle, and it'll have to be completely autonomous.

        • by Holi ( 250190 )
          I am not sure a nano probe is going to have the energy requirements to send a message 40 trillion km back to earth. What happens when some unforeseen event knocks it off of the beam path (say it passes by something massive enough to gravitationally alter its trajectory)? Would we know, or would we keep shining that laser at Alpha Centauri for 20 years?
          • The laser propulsion won't be shining at Alpha Centauri because it'll be far too diffuse to be of any use long before then. The acceleration will happen in our own solar system.

    • They've supposedly been doing some interesting experiments with quantum entanglement, and as this is a totally privately-funded project, is it too outrageous to try to develop those experiments into an interstellar communications system?
      • by wbr1 ( 2538558 ) on Tuesday April 12, 2016 @11:57AM (#51893041)
        You cannot use entanglement to communicate at least an not currently understood. A receiver reading the spin or other property of a particle cannot determine if the measurement they make is a result of taking the measurement or the particle having been changed at a distance.
        • ..at least an not currently understood.

          Sure, that's my whole point: At this point in time how can anyone have an accurate read on how much that could be developed by a focused, concerted effort?

          • If FTL communication is possible, it means that the theory of general relativity is completely wrong. But if that's the case, you'd expect to have seen indications of that by now.
          • by Athanasius ( 306480 ) <slashdot AT miggy DOT org> on Tuesday April 12, 2016 @12:26PM (#51893291) Homepage

            No. Not being able to leverage quantum entanglement into actual FTL communications is a fundamental limit of how it works.

            To state it simply. If two particles have their state entangled for a property then measuring that property on one causes the same measured property on the other to have the opposite value but which way around these are is essentially random and impossible to control. The best you can use this for is to securely duplicate a sequence of random values, (and in the case of sending one half of each pair to another site, assuming your implementation doesn't have any problems, know if someone had at all intercepted those particles).

            This is why all current uses of the technology are used to send an encryption key which you then use to encrypt normal communications.

            • Ah. Well, not being someone with a Ph.D in physics, and certainly not quantum physics, there was no way I'd've known that, which is why I ask questions. ;-) After all we're having a discussion here, right? ;-) Always nice when I can learn something.
    • Round trip?

    • Assuming the propulsion laser is in solar system, the "sail" being a mirror that gets "modulated" and hence reflect back the laser light transmitting the information?

      • We can barely detect the light coming back from the reflector on the Moon. Out of 10^17 photons/second sent at the reflector, we receive less than one back. This isn't going to work over distances of light years.
        • by wbr1 ( 2538558 )
          And that is with a retroreflector, not a sail designed to impart momentum. Additionally, the laser would not be on for much of the journey, only while accelerating to cruising speed.
          • Additionally, the laser would not be on for much of the journey, only while accelerating to cruising speed.

            If you're not planning to make the craft slow down on the other side, why not continually accelerate the entire journey to make it as quick as possible (assuming the efficiency doesn't drop below some minimum threshold partway through)?

    • Jeez, just trail a long cable behind!
    • by NEDHead ( 1651195 ) on Tuesday April 12, 2016 @01:20PM (#51893725)

      If you have a continuous stream of launches, it would be simple to create a mesh network (for redundancy) that daisy-chains the length of the path to relay signals.

      And by having a large cluster of detector devices you can have an arbitrarily large collective system for high resolution.

    • by invid ( 163714 )
      The thing is going to be hitting Alpha Centauri at relativistic speeds. With no way to slow down it will in all likelihood be vaporized when it hits a spec of dust at the edge of the star system.
    • I agree, the article says it'll send back a laser signal, but it might be too weak to even see.
      Seems like they really need to improve that feature first, otherwise it's utterly pointless.

      Also, there was no mention of power supply. At the mass they're talking about, it won't be solar panels or nuclear batteries. Both are too heavy, and a solar panel would quickly become worthless and provide insufficient power. As to our regular batteries, I don't see them surviving that long, both because of insufficient st
  • Obligatory Fermi (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Applehu Akbar ( 2968043 ) on Tuesday April 12, 2016 @11:46AM (#51892949)

    So why hasn't "someone" done this already?

    • by maeka ( 518272 ) on Tuesday April 12, 2016 @11:59AM (#51893063) Journal

      So why hasn't "someone" done this already?

      I'm aware of no human technology which would enable us to say with any certainty at all that there aren't 10,000,000 similar-sized alien probes in our solar system right now.

      • I'm aware of no human technology which would enable us to say with any certainty at all that there aren't 10,000,000 similar-sized alien probes in our solar system right now.

        You don't think we'd be able to detect the powerful lasers that would be aimed at them ?

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Gilgaron ( 575091 )
          Why would you? The whole idea of a laser is that it stays cohesive. It isn't like you'd see the beam like using a laser in atmosphere.
          • Re:Obligatory Fermi (Score:5, Interesting)

            by Athanasius ( 306480 ) <slashdot AT miggy DOT org> on Tuesday April 12, 2016 @12:31PM (#51893327) Homepage

            You can't collimate a laser beam that perfectly. When I looked into that some time recently I believe for a visible red light laser you'd see significant dispersion after less than 10km. Yes, in a vacuum. Even if you could align the internals perfectly you'd still get a small amount of diffraction where the beam leaves the apparatus.

            Over lightyears you're never going to maintain beam cohesion.

            This also both answers the GP's question for the period of time the such a probe is being accelerated and why it wouldn't be accelerated the whole distance. Indeed given the travel time, even if accelerated to very close to the speed of light, you'd not be aiming the laser at the destination system (it would move some by the time the probe got there).

          • Why would you? The whole idea of a laser is that it stays cohesive. It isn't like you'd see the beam like using a laser in atmosphere.

            You mean like using a laser in a dusty room. It takes effort to make the beam of a laser visible, contrary to how Hollywood represents it.

        • No, because the photons would be aimed at the probe, not at us.

          • No, because the photons would be aimed at the probe, not at us.

            If the beam is wide enough, it would hit both. The laser we use for lunar ranging has a 6.5 km spot on the Moon's surface, and the Moon is very close.

        • Not if they're tightly focused enough. You only see a laser if A) it's pointed at you or B) it's going through a medium like dust or gas that parts of the beam reflect off towards you

          • There are theoretical limits to the size of the laser spot. Making it smaller requires uses shorter wavelength, but you can't make the wavelength too short, or the light will go through the sail.
        • The Mote In God's Eye
        • by dbraden ( 214956 )

          I would say "no." First of all, the propulsion laser is only fired at it for a few minutes while it's still close to its launch point. Second, we wouldn't be in the laser's path if we were the destination since the laser light is traveling 5x faster than the probes (missing our location probably by several years, unless of course ours and theirs stellar movement is in exactly the same or exactly the opposite directions).

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        They were already swallowed by a small dog

      • by Salgak1 ( 20136 )

        . . . and that "Mutual of Andromeda's 'Wild Planet'", hosted by Mrln Prknz, is the Galaxy's number one reality show. And they don't even pay us for it, much less a year's supply of Rzz-a-roni, the Aldebaran Treat. . .

      • by invid ( 163714 )

        I'm aware of no human technology which would enable us to say with any certainty at all that there aren't 10,000,000 similar-sized alien probes in our solar system right now.

        We would detect all the explosions they made when they hit the Oort cloud.

  • Better make two of those...

    >> fly at 20 percent of the speed of light ...in case the first one hits a dust spec at 134 million miles per hour.
  • 0.2C (Score:5, Informative)

    by kheldan ( 1460303 ) on Tuesday April 12, 2016 @11:55AM (#51893027) Journal
    Um, small or not, have they considered how the craft is going to be shielded against collisions at that speed? Even something as small as a grain of sand at 0.2C packs quite a wallop. Also, is radiation an issue at that velocity?
    • Re: 0.2C (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      They'll probably use force fields and/or deflector shields.

    • They probably assume that space is empty enough not to worry. Probes to Jupiter and beyond have to fly through the asteroid belt and that's never been a problem.
      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Rockoon ( 1252108 )
        More than a few probes have mysteriously been lost.

        The fastest (relative to our sun) thing ever recorded in our solar system was only a few percent of the speed of light. We can treat all the rocks and dust in the solar system as basically standing still when talking about the relative speeds that this probe will take on.

        Basically, you are talking out your ass, waving your hands about data that wouldn't apply if it were true, but isnt even true.
    • I was thinking the same thing.

      Also, related to that, once the craft gets to its destination, how does it slow down and send back information?

      • Also, related to that, once the craft gets to its destination, how does it slow down and send back information?

        It doesn't. It makes a few pictures during a fly-by and sends those.

      • It doesn't. There's no way to slow it down, and given the size that's being talked about it wouldn't have enough power to have any hope of sending a detectable signal back (both because it wouldn't have enough stored energy and it also wouldn't have a big enough antenna to have any hope of aiming the signal back).

        I suspect this whole thing would be more aimed at developing technologies and inspiring others to solve the various problems to sending a useful probe in the future.

      • Maybe the idea is that an advanced alien race will discover it, add on a whole bunch of mods and then send it back to Earth to report.

    • Re:0.2C (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Eloking ( 877834 ) on Tuesday April 12, 2016 @02:24PM (#51894179)

      Um, small or not, have they considered how the craft is going to be shielded against collisions at that speed? Even something as small as a grain of sand at 0.2C packs quite a wallop. Also, is radiation an issue at that velocity?

      Collisions at 0.2C? Hell, even at 100 MPH (160Km/h) the probe will be pretty much destroyed.

      The magic is that most of the universe is, well, empty. I didn't do the math for this particular case, but I remember one of NASA scientist that made such calculation of the probability of a collision of the voyager probe for the next millennium. It was several digit after the decimal point.

    • by nucrash ( 549705 )

      Even if we manage to pepper the Alpha Centauri system with these things, around a million or so, the odds of actually hitting a planet are? You would have better luck repeatedly winning the lottery every day for a year straight than hitting something over on the other side.

      If these are space born, intelligent creatures on the other side, they will most likely respond with a serious, WTF?, rather than retaliate. That is if they are advanced and actually have quite an established presence(Thousands of Stati

  • Starwisp (Score:5, Interesting)

    by seanellis ( 302682 ) on Tuesday April 12, 2016 @12:01PM (#51893077) Homepage Journal

    Something like this was proposed many years ago by Robert L Forward, called Starwisp. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org] for details.

    The probe would be very light but extended, like a cobweb. Tiny processor/sensor nodes would exist where the wires touched. Some nodes and web filaments would undoubtedly be destroyed by dust collisions en route, but would be multiply redundant. On arrival, the probe would be tattered and torn but still functional.

    • by Salgak1 ( 20136 )

      Hopefully, nanotechnology will be developed to a useful level when and if they decide to launch. . . . of course, those of us who've read Charles Stross [wikipedia.org] wonder about the potential of a nanotechnology-enhanced Starwisp-type craft. . . .

    • Some nodes and web filaments would undoubtedly be destroyed by dust collisions en route, but would be multiply redundant. On arrival, the probe would be tattered and torn but still functional.

      But would they? I wonder what the odds are?

      There's a whole lot of empty between us and the nearest star. I wonder what the actual odds are of collision over that distance. Would be a neat problem for someone who knows this stuff ... which is not me.

  • by IWantMoreSpamPlease ( 571972 ) on Tuesday April 12, 2016 @12:05PM (#51893103) Homepage Journal

    I'm all for science, I work in a lab after all, but the technological tasks facing them won't be solved anytime soon.
    Maybe 20 years from now, but not anytime soon.
    Call me when they have a working, fully functional one.

    • Please notice that it says "a $100 million research program".

    • by Trachman ( 3499895 ) on Tuesday April 12, 2016 @12:33PM (#51893349) Journal

      Obstacles are way too high. Current calculation requires 60 Giga Watt laser beam. Largest nuclear plant in USA, Palo Verde, Arizona, has approx 1.25 Giga Watt power.

      More: according to the plan, installations that generate power of 50 nuclear plants would need to be sent to space, for lasers are supposed to be above the atmosphere.

      Finally, the power of 50 nuclear plants would be concentrated into the area more or less equal to handkerchief. I think that handkerchief will evaporate, maybe it will not. However there might be some interference at the interstellar probe. Technical difficulties are insurmountable so far.

      Anyway, the last time I have checked approximately 50% of world's population did not have proper sewer, and approximately 15% do not have running water and electricity. Just a small fraction of interstellar travel project would bring these necessities to the fellow human beings. I would say, that we should build few nuclear power plants here on earth first.

      I think that we will need 100 years to send a interstellar probe.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        approximately 50% of world's population did not have proper sewer, and approximately 15% do not have running water and electricity.

        If you solve that, you'd get a bigger population, followed by the same problems on a larger scale.

        • by Trachman ( 3499895 ) on Tuesday April 12, 2016 @12:45PM (#51893443) Journal

          Perhaps we will get bigger population. However, history shows, that once electricity, television and contraceptives are introduced, population growth slows down significantly. Once population becomes richer population growth turns negative.

          • history shows, that once electricity, television and contraceptives are introduced, population growth slows down significantly

            Temporarily, yes. But after a few generations, it'll pick back up. Welcome to Evolution 101.

            • There will be always a way to slow down growth. Here are the few trends:

              1. Fantasy football (or online games) will be compulsory. To make sure those who proudly do not have cable TV, are using their time on the internets.

              2. Everyone will need to get a PhD and compulsory post-doctoral studies just to get a job to maintain and service fast food robot servers. Many of the people get postdoc education at around 35 years.

              3. Having a child will be so expensive (both in terms of time and money), that many will cho

              • 1+2, yes sufficiently strict laws to prohibit getting children would work, but we're not going to have global strict laws. Some countries will continue to encourage child birth + emigration. 3: poor people already more children than rich people, and they're not going to stop unless you let the children die, which means you're back to where you started. 4: your puny stigma is no match for the forces of evolution.
          • by Eloking ( 877834 )

            Perhaps we will get bigger population. However, history shows, that once electricity, television and contraceptives are introduced, population growth slows down significantly. Once population becomes richer population growth turns negative.

            Yeah....let's see how that argument hold when we'll find a cure to, let's say, double the life expectancy (and double the fertility time) of a human being.

        • Actually, as people's lives improve, birthrates go down. This has been shown to be closely correlated with child survival rates above all else. Sanitation and clean water have a large impact on child survival rates.
      • Anyway, the last time I have checked approximately 50% of world's population did not have proper sewer, and approximately 15% do not have running water and electricity. Just a small fraction of interstellar travel project would bring these necessities to the fellow human beings.

        "15%" of the world's population doesn't have running water? The number is closer to 50%. If you were *actually* concerned about water issues in the developing world, I suspect you would know that already. (And no... a "small fraction" of a $100 million research budget isn't going to bring indoor plumbing to 3.5 billion people).

    • by amicusNYCL ( 1538833 ) on Tuesday April 12, 2016 @01:43PM (#51893877)

      Call me when they have a working, fully functional one.

      Why, so we can get another awesome opinion?

    • How do you think we get from here to 20 years from now? This is 100 million in research they hope to conclude over a "generation" (which happens to be 20 years). So maybe they won't call you, but they are calling people who can help get us from "that's not possible" to "we've done it!".
  • War comes first (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Pollux ( 102520 ) <speterNO@SPAMtedata.net.eg> on Tuesday April 12, 2016 @12:17PM (#51893195) Journal

    At $100 million, that's roughly the cost of 40 airstrikes against ISIS. It's too bad we're such a trigger-happy country, we aren't willing to let our thumbs rest [quora.com]for two weeks [ibtimes.com] and use the money we saved to launch a scientific mission instead.

  • by U2xhc2hkb3QgU3Vja3M ( 4212163 ) on Tuesday April 12, 2016 @12:32PM (#51893343)

    For decades, the tiny ships will tore across the empty wastes of space to finally dive on to the first planet they come across, where due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire space fleet will be accidentally swallowed by a small dog.

  • by joe_frisch ( 1366229 ) on Tuesday April 12, 2016 @12:35PM (#51893361)

    A visible light laser can't practically be focused to meter scales over more than about ~10^7M considering diffraction and reasonable (eg 10s of M) sized mirrors. At 0.1C, that gives you an acceleration time of ~1 second. So the sail material is hit by ~10% of its mass energy in 1 second. No way it could possibly survive, even if the laser could be constructed.

    Considering that a 30M telescope is a ~$1B project, requiring a much larger telescope is not consistent with a $100M project.

    This is why we need experimental physicists as well as theorists.....

  • by DriveDog ( 822962 ) on Tuesday April 12, 2016 @02:35PM (#51894277)
    Why did Hawking decide it's OK to send tracer bullets to Alpha Centauri so A-C's ETs can locate us? Because they can already observe our electronic emissions anyhow?

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