Breakthrough Starshot: The first steps to the stars

On on the 55th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering space flight, Internet investor and science philanthropist Yuri Milner and physicist Stephen Hawking announced a plan for our firsts steps to the stars: Breakthrough Starshot.

Milner and Hawking were joined by Ann Druyan, Freeman Dyson, Mae Jamison, Avi Loeb and Pete Worden to make the announcement at the One World Observatory, New York City.The Breakthrough Starshot initiative is a $100 million research and engineering program to seek proof of concept for using light beams to propel small robotic “nanocraft” to 20 percent of light speed. A possible fly-by mission could reach Alpha Centauri within about 20 years of its launch.

The program will be led by Pete Worden, the former director of NASA AMES Research Center, and advised by a committee of top scientists and engineers. The board will consist of Hawking, Milner, and Facebook’s creator Mark Zuckerberg. A mission to Alpha Centauri could be feasible in a few decades.

“We are here today to talk about Breakthrough Starshot – and our future in space,” said Stephen Hawking. “What makes human beings unique? There are many theories. Some say it’s language, or tools. Others say it’s logical reasoning. They obviously haven’t met many humans.”

“I believe what makes us unique is transcending our limits. Nature pins us to the ground. But I just flew to America. Nature forbids me from speaking. But here I am.”

“How do we transcend these limits? With our minds, and our machines,” continued Hawking. “The limit that confronts us now is the great void between us and the stars. But now we can transcend it.”

“With light beams, lightsails and the lightest spacecraft ever built, we can launch a mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation. Today, we commit to this next great leap into the cosmos. Because we are human. And our nature is to fly.”

Watch the recorded webcast of the announcement.

Milner, who was named for Yuri Gagarin like many Russian boys born in the early 1960s, hopes to prove that a probe could make the journey to Alpha Centauri in only 20 years. ““Everybody, including myself, thought that this wouldn’t be possible in our lifetime,” Milner told The Atlantic. “[We need] a dramatic reduction in the size of a spacecraft. And by dramatic, I mean many, many orders of magnitude. We need to build a spacecraft that would weigh a few grams, together with the sail.”

The spececraft, or “nanocraft,” dubbed StarChip, will be a fully functional space probe on-a-wafer, with cameras, photon thrusters, power supply, navigation, and communication equipment. The StarChip, which can be mass-produced at the cost of an iPhone and be sent on missions in large numbers to provide redundancy and coverage, will be propelled by a 4-meter lightsail built with advanced nano-engineered metamaterials.

The StarChip and its lightsail, both weighing only a few grams, will be pushed by light beams from high-power (100 gigawatt) lasers on Earth, accelerated to 20 percent of the speed of light, and reach Alpha Centauri in two decades. There is no room for a deceleration system, so the mission will be a high-speed fly-by with the goal of returning data and images from the Alpha Centauri system, which could have planets.

The announcement notes that the proposed light propulsion system is on a scale significantly exceeding any currently operational analog. Basing the propulsion lasers on Earth (as opposed to basing them in space, for example on the Moon) presents safety, environmental, and political issues, but it seems the only practical way to launch the Starshot in a few decades.

The announcement emphasizes that the key elements of the proposed system design are based on technology either already available or likely to be attainable in the near future under reasonable assumptions, and that the development of the ultimate mission to Alpha Centauri would require a budget comparable to the largest current scientific experiments. If so, the total funding needed would be of the order of $5-10 billion, which seems ambitious but possible.

The Breakthrough Starshot website has a Research page with technical papers and books relevant to the project, including a recent paper titled “A Roadmap to Interstellar Flight,” by UC Santa Barbara physicist Philip Lubin.

Alpha Centauri

Paul Gilster’s Centauri Dreams website has the best coverage of Breakthrough Starshot. In “Breakthrough Starshot: Mission to Alpha Centauri” Gilster outlines the huge challenge of developing and launching an Alpha Centauri flyby mission within a single generation. “This is classic [Robert Forward] thinking rotated according to the symmetries of our new era,” says Gilster.

“Milner hopes to see [nanocraft] delivered to orbit and then boosted on their way with a 30 minute laser ‘burn’ that, reaching 60,000 g’s, drives the sail to 20 percent of the speed of light.”

“The trick here will be to create ‘phased arrays’ of lasers that can scale up to the 100 gigawatt level,” says Gilster, among other challenges including data return, interstellar dust, sail design, and the sail’s ability to stay on the beam during acceleration.

But there is room for optimism. In “The Odds on Starshot,” Gilster hopes that the project will develop a reusable facility capable of sending fleets of small sails to our choice of nearby stars and returning imagery.

“In a time of scaled-back thinking and low expectations, Breakthrough Starshot offers a sudden jolt of optimism that a new wave of research is on the horizon.”

On April 15-16, 2016, the Breakthrough Initiatives will hold its inaugural Breakthrough Discuss workshop at Stanford University. Though none of the three core sessions is dedicated to Starshot, it seems likely that the project will be discussed.

Yesterday, watching the webcast, I was thinking that it’s great to be alive in 2016 and see the first funded initiative for an interstellar probe and our first steps to the stars announced in real-time HD video over the Internet. I am 58, so I won’t see the data and images transmitted back to Earth, but I guess I will start exercising more so perhaps I can see the launch.

To the many predictable comments that the money should be spent on [insert your favorite cause here] instead, I reply that, first, it’s Milner’s money, and second, that the world is interesting because there are different people with different priorities and goals. Some work for peace, some develop medicines, some create great literature and art… and some build stairways to the stars. All are needed.

Breakthrough Starshot is an awesome project that could boost our mental health as a society by re-igniting our enthusiasm for space with big visions of our cosmic future among the stars. I wholeheartedly support the project and I hope there will be opportunities for citizen scientists to contribute. It’s in this spirit that I suggest to consider two ideas:

First, as the announcement notes, interstellar travel technology could permit achieving important intermediate milestones as it develops, and exploring the solar system and near interstellar space before Alpha Centauri. I wish to add my voice to those that suggest a mission to the (yet unconfirmed) Planet Nine as an intermediate Starshot milestone. Planet Nine is expected to be 0.01 light years (3 light days) away, which is far enough to be considered as an interstellar target but close enough to be reachable by precursor Starshot missions powered by preliminary, scaled-down versions of the laser propulsion system.

A Starshot fly-by mission to Planet Nine would permit acquiring useful data for future robotic (or even manned) missions, which could establish a first outpost in interstellar space. Establishing a base on or orbiting Planet Nine (if it’s really there) should be considered as an important priority for the first phase of interstellar exploration, especially if the base can double as a gravitational lens observatory.

Second, the StarChip should have the smartest possible on-board data processing software compatible with the hardware constraints. If smart software doesn’t fit on one StarChip, perhaps it could be implemented in a swarm of linked and co-operating StarChips.

It appears that really smart software is on the horizon: real thinking and feeling Artificial Intelligence (AI) of human (or more than human) level could be developed in a few decades. Sending a real AI instead of dumb unthinking software to Alpha Centauri would be equivalent to sending a person (think for example of Samantha, the AI in Her).

Even more interestingly, mind uploading technology, which could developed in this century, would permit sending human astronauts as software entities living in the StarChip processors. I have argued that an e-crew – a crew of human uploads implemented in solid-state electronic circuitry – doesn’t require air, water, food, medical care, or radiation shielding, can withstand extreme acceleration, and could be implemented in extremely miniaturized “manned” starships.

This seems a weird idea, but – as hinted at by theoretical physicist Avi Loeb in the announcement’s Q/A session shown in the video – post-biological life could be common among the stars. Perhaps, as Martin Rees and others think, advanced civilizations are post-biological. Hawking himself argued that intelligent machines based on mechanical and electronic components, rather than macromolecules, could eventually replace DNA based life, just as DNA may have replaced an earlier form of life.

Perhaps we could send AIs and uploads to the stars, combining interstellar expansion with post-biological evolution.

The bright star Alpha Centauri and its surroundings (credit: ESO)

Images of Alpha Centauri from ESO.

  • David Román

    Rather than sending Samantha, the AI with Scarlett Johansson’s voice, I think we might send The Chimp A tad less dangerous, perhaps

    • Giulio Prisco

      Hi David, did you already move to the East?

      Great story!

      • David Román

        Yeah, been in Singapore for a month… Settling in alright.