Earlier this year, Stephen Hawking teamed up with billionaire Yuri Milner to propose a new kind of revolutionary space travel dubbed Breakthrough Starshot that would utilize lasers to send very small space probes to other star systems several light years away in as little as a couple of decades by propelling them at about one-fifth of the speed of light.
Image Credit: Breakthrough/YouTube
With the recent announcements of a Earth-like exoplanet, dubbed Proxima b, orbiting its host star in the nearby system of Alpha Centari, this space travel method is looking like a necessary milestone to achieve if we’re ever going to study something outside of our own Solar System up close.
With the added interest in Proxima b all of a sudden, new research led by Avi Loeb, a professor of astronomy at Harvard University, has been carried out regarding the practicality of the Breakthrough Starshot idea.
A pre-print paper summarizing the study is available on arXiv.org.
The findings suggest that project Breakthrough Starshot has some flaws that could make it very difficult to carry out. The biggest problem seems to be something as insignificant as space dust. It turns out that it could have a very negative impact on the micro-spacecraft that are being blasted off into interstellar space.
When we think of interstellar dust clouds, it immediately comes to mind that a massive spacecraft would just fly right through it unscathed, but with Breakthrough Starshot, we’re talking about micro-spacecraft that weigh only a few grams and are traveling at exponentially faster speeds.
At these significantly faster speeds, the bombardment of space gas and dust particles could theoretically rip Breakthrough Starshot micro-spacecraft missions to shreds before they ever got close to reaching Proxima Centauri, or even the neighboring Alpha Centauri, to study the exoplanets contained within the system.
Of course, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The research Loeb’s team conducted reveals that although Breakthrough Starshot micro-spacecraft could become heavily eroded before getting to their destination, they may still function as expected.
Assuming we can armor them up enough to withstand the kind of bombardment they would experience, there may still be a way to use this plan.
Of course, there’s no way to really defend against larger space rocks that could get the way. For this reason, it’s important to ensure that many of these micro-spacecraft get sent to the system, and not just one, that way we can use the ‘power-in-numbers’ technique to try to get there regardless of the hidden dangers that could prevent us from succeeding.
Source: New Scientist