As a fan of space travel, I was really excited when I found out about Breakthrough Starshot. This mission is a proof of concept for nano-spacecrafts that are gram-scale and powered by solar sails. These crafts can go 20% of the speed of light. To understand the scale better, let’s use the destination as a frame of reference. Breakthrough Starshot aims to reach the closest star system to ours, Alpha Centauri, which is twenty five TRILLION miles away. At the current top speed, a craft could get there in 30,000 years. If Breakthrough works as planned, it could get there in twenty years. Not twenty thousand, twenty. The way the crafts will reach such speeds is a small lightsail, only a few hundred atoms thick and meter-scale dimensions. This sail is pushed by an array of laser, allowing it to reach high speeds.
The microchips used to power these crafts can be mass produced at the cost of an iPhone. This allows Breakthrough to launch multiple crafts, which are needed because a ship going at that speed while that small could be destroyed by something comparable in size to a speck of dust. The plan is to launch thousands from a mothership and shoot them with a laser. This can get the crafts to their target speed within minutes.
The ultimate goal of Breakthrough Starshot is to reach Alpha Centauri and capture images of the planets in the system to transmit them back to Earth for research purposes. However, it isn’t going to be easy to make the crafts. The cost of each launch is expected to be a few hundred thousand dollars. The expected launch date for Breakthrough Starshot is sometime in 2036, and they should reach Alpha Centauri by 2056. I can’t believe we’re actually going to send something to another solar system in my lifetime. Until next time,
Breakthrough initiatives. “INTERNET INVESTOR AND SCIENCE PHILANTHROPIST YURI MILNER & PHYSICIST STEPHEN HAWKING ANNOUNCE BREAKTHROUGH STARSHOT PROJECT TO DEVELOP 100 MILLION MILE PER HOUR MISSION TO THE STARS WITHIN A GENERATION.” Breakthrough Initiatives, 12 Apr. 2012.
Wang, Brian. “Progress to Stable Laser Propelled Sails.” NextBigFuture.com, NextBigFuture.com, 14 Oct. 2017.