back to article Prof Hawking to mail postage-stamp space craft to Alpha Centauri using frickin' lasers

Famed physicist Stephen Hawking and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner are putting their weight behind a research project to send a tiny spacecraft to another star system. The Breakthrough Starshot campaign aims to create a craft about the size of a postage stamp and propel it with blasts of energy from an array of laser beams. …

Page:

  1. Alister Silver badge

    Laser powered spaceflight has been mooted, and even demonstrated experimentally, but the idea that they can aim the laser accurately enough through the atmosphere to propel something the size of a postage stamp is surely piling on more complexity than they needed to?

    It would of course also be quite useful as a ground based weapon...

    1. marioaieie

      star wars

      It's actually the opposite: we can do that exactly because of laser weapons (http://spie.org/newsroom/technical-articles/4853-did-adaptive-optics-end-the-cold-war).

      It looks like the star wars project might do some good in the end.

      To be fair, most of the research is actually coming from astronomical observatories, given that the military technology is still secret.

      1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

        Re: star wars

        To be fair, most of the research is actually coming from astronomical observatories, given that the military technology is still crap, retardely expensive, easy to defeat and likely to stay so.

        FTFY

    2. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge

      They're aiming for a metre-wide sail and it's suggested the lasers will use adaptive optics. They admit they can't afford the lasers (about $1-trillion), that the array would be a handy ground based weapon, and that we have no material that can be used to build the sail. They even acknowledge there is no way for the probe to communicate back. The $100-million is to research these problems.

      They don't mention that getting the probe to hit Alpha Centauri will be really tricky; small errors add up over a parsec. Nor do they talk about cosmic rays which will evaginate the unshielded silicon -- they're going to have to fire a lot of probes in the hope one gets there.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        evaginate

        Thank you for tomorrows word of the day :-)

      2. MrDamage

        evaginate the unshielded silicon

        Sounds like something that would happen if Glen Quagmire starred is a Ross Meyer film.

        *giggity*

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: evaginate the unshielded silicon

          oh yeah!

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      > It would of course also be quite useful as a ground based weapon...

      A frickin' gigawatt laser would be nice to have when the Alpha Centaurians come looking for whoever shotgunned them with 1000 ludicrous-speed bullets.

      1. werdsmith Silver badge

        I'm also sitting here wondering how a postage stamp sized spacecraft can, alongside all the other sensors and mission equipment house an RF transmitter capable of getting useful information back to planet earth.

        So, the wires connecting to the Solar sail will be an antenna, but the transmit signal has got to be strong enough to be heard above all the other noise out there at that distance with the path loss.

        1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge
          Happy

          Tricky!

          They might impact on the local planning office in Alpha Centauri. Still, they might also find information on any demolition plans

          More seriously, simply dust along the way could seriously damage a craft flying at that speed, even if cosmic rays miss it. Still a fascinating project. We need people doing weird science, and hey, it's got frickin' lasers involved. All we need is sharks

          1. Keith Glass
            Happy

            Re: Tricky!

            SPACE sharks. . . .

            1. JetSetJim Silver badge
              Thumb Up

              Re: Tricky!

              > SPACE sharks. . . .

              Surely it's the "logical" next iteration of Sharknado.

              Or the Muppets ("Shaaaarks Iiiiin Spaaaaace")

            2. AbelSoul
              Trollface

              Re: SPACE sharks. . . .

              With frickin' LAZERZ!

              Looks like they're already here! (after a fashion...)

        2. boltar Silver badge

          "I'm also sitting here wondering how a postage stamp sized spacecraft can, alongside all the other sensors and mission equipment house an RF transmitter capable of getting useful information back to planet earth."

          I don't think they'll get far enough to worry about that. At 20% of the speed of light even a small amount of tenous gas or dust will turn the craft into high temperature plasma.

          1. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge

            "At 20% of the speed of light even a small amount of tenous gas or dust will turn the craft into high temperature plasma."

            The Local Interstellar Cloud contains both Sol and Alpha Centauri and is about 0.3 particles/cc. Iff the energy from all those hits was fully absorbed, it would result in a few millijoules per second of heating. (I've assumed the atoms were stationary -- i.e. ignored their thermal energy.)

            But heating is not going to be a problem because those particles are protons with tens of MeV: they will punch through the wafer-thin probe, taking most of their energy with them. The sail is expendable, once accelerated. But the electronics needs to survive a billion cosmic rays per second for decades. Expect to find more of your electronics on the outside that the inside. As I said, evaginated.

        3. Gruezi

          Not if you fire them at 3 month intervals and use the string of craft as a relay back to earth

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            3 months x 0.2c = a distance of 0.05 light years between them, or 470 billion kilometers.

            For comparison, Voyager 1 is currently just over 20 billion kilometers away. We can just about receive a message from it, since:

            1. It has a radioactive power source, currently generating about 250 watts

            2. It has directional antenna

            3. We capture it using a network of huge antennas around the earth.

            http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/didyouknow.html

            "The sensitivity of our deep-space tracking antennas located around the world is truly amazing. The antennas must capture Voyager information from a signal so weak that the power striking the antenna is only 10 exponent -16 watts (1 part in 10 quadrillion). A modern-day electronic digital watch operates at a power level 20 billion times greater than this feeble level."

            Now try to make a postage stamp which works as well as this - both as transmitter and receiver. Oh, and make it work over a distance 25 times larger, so the signal is 625 times weaker.

        4. Thicko

          You could just have the probes sent say a month apart so each one could relay the data to the ones behind it with enough redundancy that one or two lost probes in the chain can still make a link. What could possibly go wrong!

        5. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge
          Mushroom

          "heard above all the other noise out there at that distance with the path loss."

          Noise dwarfs path loss. It's got to be heard over a pair of omnidirectional transmitters broadcasting 1027W spread over every frequency band from RF to X-rays.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      They've been able to hit mirrors on the moon as part of the Lunar Ranging Experiment since the 60s, so there's no reason why not with today's technology.

      Although quite how they'll steer it to allow for mid-flight course correction I have no idea.

      1. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge

        "They've been able to hit mirrors on the moon as part of the Lunar Ranging Experiment since the 60s, so there's no reason why not with today's technology."

        LLR targets are about ~0.5m wide. But by the time the beam reaches one, it's ~6km wide. And the amount of energy reflected is not enough to be seen by the naked eye. It's hitting it and hitting it with enough energy that's the problem.

    5. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      "It would of course also be quite useful as a ground based weapon..."

      Russian billionaire?

      Does he have a private island by any chance?

      With a dormant volcano on it?

  2. Diodelogic

    More information for those interested

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/100-million-plan-will-send-probes-to-the-nearest-star/

    1. Tom 7 Silver badge

      Re: More information for those interested

      100GW - that's a lot of power! You're not going to get that for 100million.

      The cost of the lasers may drop but you are going to have to build 30 Hinkley C's at 18 billion a piece and rising.

  3. Flatpackhamster

    Lasers on earth?

    Surely they should be mounted on the moon, around the edge and in the centre of a huge circular crater.

    1. Snowy
      Joke

      Re: Lasers on earth?

      Thats no moon :D

      1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge
        Alien

        Re: Lasers on earth?

        I have just the moon you need

    2. Afernie

      Re: Lasers on earth?

      "Surely they should be mounted on the moon, around the edge and in the centre of a huge circular crater."

      This makes sense to me. However. given the vast expense of such an exercise, there's clearly no budget for such niceties as safety rails

  4. Swiss Anton

    No return

    Even if this is possible, how is this tiny spacecraft going to be able to phone home when it gets there? The only way to retrieve the data gathered by this thing would be to slingshot it back to Earth using some massive object. It seems to me there's more chance of a butterfly causing a hurricane than that happening.

    1. cbars

      Re: No return

      That's one of the "future problems" they hope someone will solve.

      Personally, I reckon you're looking at a wide area telescope to receive (SETI in spaaaace), and then hope that you can synchronise the fleet to take advantage of constructive interference

    2. bozoid

      Re: No return

      In Robert Forward's original 1980s-vintage "StarWisp" proposal (which was for a maser-driven sail), the probe would include actuators in the sail. When the probe was due to pass through the target system, the driving lasers would flood that system with laser light. The sail would return data by using the actuators to modulate the reflected light.

      1. Christoph Silver badge

        Re: No return

        My understanding of Starwisp is that, being driven by masers, they would sent a slug of maser (radio) energy to meet it at the target star. That would be used to power up the circuitry to make observations, and also to power the return signal.

        Starwisp is not a single postage stamp-sized chip, it's a mesh of wires with electronic nodes at the intersections. So it has a wide area for making optical observations, and for shaping the return beam.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: No return

      Easy, they just reverse the polarity of the lasers and suck it back to Earth. Haven't you ever seen a single Star Trek episode?

    4. Smooth Newt Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: No return

      They could save a bundle of money by sending an actual postage stamp instead of developing and sending a postage stamp sized spacecraft. Then the Alpha Centaurians could just post some photos back to us.

      1. BurnT'offering

        Re: No return

        The photos would arrive bent

      2. Stoneshop Silver badge
        Coat

        Re: No return

        How to get it back? Just tell the philatelist community it's an actual, extremely rare, stamp.

    5. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      Boffin

      "how is this tiny spacecraft going to be able to phone home when it gets there? "

      Well usually the idea has been to modulate the driving beam.

      Like a passively powered RFID tag.

      On a very large scale.

    6. Ugotta B. Kiddingme

      Re: No return

      they just need to include a note:

      "Greetings,

      "Peace and Prosperity to you and all your fellow Centaurian beings. I am Mr Amatee Mbogo, Finance Minister for a small nation-state on planet Sol 3 (which we call Earth) and am in possession of 274 bazillion Centaurian dollars. Please send a small finder's fee of 500 Centaurian dollars to the following space-time coordinates and a generous share of the fortune will be sent straight away."

  5. DJSpuddyLizard

    Isn't it pointless

    To have cameras and sensors without a frackin huge transmitter onboard?

    Or are we supposed to slosh through the boating pond and retrieve our toy spaceship when it gets where it's supposed to go?

    1. frank ly Silver badge

      Re: Isn't it pointless

      By the time it gets there, we'll have developed FTL travel and will be waiting for it, with flags waving and a band playing.

      1. cbars

        Re: Isn't it pointless

        If we use that reasoning, we'll never invest in the technology which might eventually lead to FTL travel.

        Also, we don't even have anything close to a theoretical model for how we could achieve that. So I'd say nope - we'll get there faster the this way.

      2. Captain DaFt

        Re: Isn't it pointless

        "By the time it gets there, we'll have developed FTL travel and will be waiting for it, with flags waving and a band playing."

        More likely, by the time it reaches its destination, we'll be extinct. :/

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Isn't it pointless

        By the time it gets there, we'll have developed FTL travel and will be waiting for it, with flags waving and a band playing.

        I hear my boss presenting his latest plan.

    2. Patrick Marino

      Re: Isn't it pointless

      It will have a usb stick. They hope the aliens will plug it in their pc when it gets there.

      1. Palpy
        Pint

        Re: Isn't it pointless -- USB stick

        Nice one. We'll send 100 USB sticks. Assuming aliens have the same intelligence as college students, 48% will plug them in.

        ...However, given unknowns about alien anatomy, we only hope that plugging them in does not make them pregnant.

        Have a virtual pint.

  6. barnetmike

    Mot(i)e - sized probes?

    I thought Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle had the patent on this one?

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Re: Mot(i)e - sized probes?

      Nah, Motie sailprobes are Apollo-sized.

  7. Marketing Hack Silver badge
    Alien

    It's a historic day for Alpha Centuri!!

    I have to say that Astronaut Ronthax and I are proud to be the first Centurians in orbit. We make this voyage with the hope of one day meeting other intelligent beings and peacefully sharing the wonderous galaxy we all live...wait a second...We're getting some incredibly bright beam of light here!....It's blinding!!....Centuri control, I think we're under attack!!.....What's that coming...some projectile...It's about the size of a postage stam...QUICK!! EVASIVE MANEU (CRUNCH!!!).....Centuri control!! No hull integrity and thrusters out!!....Avenge us! Avenge us!!....(silence)

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
      Alien

      Re: It's a historic day for Alpha Centuri!!

      This event will be covered up by Smoking Alien.

      You only imagined you heard this on CB (Centauri Band) amateur radio and mission control personnel regrettably all died because the salad being served in the canteen that day was infected with Centauri tapeworm.

  8. Tom 7 Silver badge

    In a galaxy shark shark away...

    hat for money here...

Page:

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2019