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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The First Mission To Alpha Centauri?

by JASmius

Via the fastest starship in an hour....?


Via a classic starship in a day and a half....?


Via horse & buggy starship in a week....?


Via New Horizons in 18,000 years....?

....Nope.  A little faster than that, actually; though our ship will be about the size of your iphone, carrying a fleet of AI chips.

Say hello to Breakthrough Starshot:

A new Alpha Centauri exploration plan announced by billionaire Internet investor Yuri Milner and cosmologist Stephen Hawking seeks to use lasers to propel very tiny spacecraft into the star system that's closest to ours.

According to Reuters, if successful, scientists could determine if Alpha Centauri, a star system about twenty five trillion miles away, contains an Earth-like planet capable of sustaining life.

Human life, that is.  A colonization target, only without the mutant Smurfs....

....though for contemporary scientists, their ever more frantic and blatantly religious quest to find life SOMEWHERE besides Earth is the delusional motivation for it.  I admit my motivation might not make a movie they'd want to watch, but I think it would be a lot more relatable.  Imagine being the late Neil Armstrong: first human being to set foot on another world.  Or the person that puts the first footprint on the Martian regolith, or the snows of Europa....Or Alpha Centauri A III, or Alpha Centauri B II?  Looking back at Sol, a faint point of light in the constellation Cassiopeia?  I would think that would be a profound experience.  It would be the ultimate pioneer story, and like all such stories, it would, in other words, be all about practicality and survival.  Which is why James Cameron threw the mutant Smurfs on Pandora.  That, and he had a science fiction Bernie Sanders campaign ad to make.

Where were we?

The catch: It could take years to develop the project, dubbed Breakthrough Starshot, and there is no guarantee it will work.

In fact, given the kinetic hazards of traveling through even the interstellar medium at over thirty seven thousand miles per second (a paint chip in Earth orbit moving at FIVE miles per second could blow a hole in the International Space Station), how "mission control" would be able to navigate it when the signals would take four years to reach the iphone (USS Steve Jobs?), how they'd be able to slow it down to in-system speeds to be able to do any planetary surveying, how the back and forth communication would be discernible over interstellar distances, etc., I'm pretty sure it's guaranteed not to work, unless the iphone will be periodically deploying subspace radio relays along the way.

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.

So it's a private sector endeavor, and Milner's cash to throw away as he chooses.

Breakthrough Starshot involves deploying small light-propelled vehicles to carry equipment like cameras and communication equipment. Scientists hope the vehicles, known as nanocraft, will eventually fly at 20% of the speed of light, more than a thousand times faster than today’s spacecraft.

So a little over twenty years' transit time.  Not too bad at all - if the iphone gets there in one piece, and we can navigate it, and slow it down and....

“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 ten, twelve feet across.”

Like a little solar sail; hence "light-propelled".

He envisions sending a larger conventional spacecraft containing thousands of nanocraft into orbit, and then launching the nanocraft one by one, he said in an interview.

And yes, I know that the Milner/Hawking probe won't be controlled from Earth but will have the AI I mentioned above independently running the mission per pre-programmed parameters - basically a miniature version of the following....

....which has its own problems, like getting Geek Squad two light-years out to fix a hard drive crash or clean out viruses, and that's why it'll take years and a fortune to develop, and it'll still be pretty much guaranteed not to work.

But if it did work....

....and definitely worth putting off death to see with my own eyes from the nursing home.

Assuming I'm not blind by then.  In that case, screw it.

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