By Meghna Murali
Have you ever wondered what would happen to the existence of human life after earth ceases to support life? Is earth the only planet which is habitable? Are we this lonely and alone? Is there any probability of us travelling to other planets? There are so many unanswered questions. A lot of us are ignorant. With the planet’s physical resources going down the drain on a daily basis, there will be a time when the earth is going to be nothing, but a puff of dust. Along with the depleting resources, our planet is also facing extreme conditions such as high temperatures, melting of the Arctic, and many more. With all the above-stated problems, maybe it’s time that we start looking out for alternative places. Maybe, it’s time for us to explore other worlds in other solar systems.
“Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves. I am convinced that humans need to leave Earth.”- Stephen Hawking
With this objective in mind, a group of scientists including Stephen Hawking came up with the idea of exploring other worlds. This project was termed as ‘The Breakthrough Starshot project‘.
What is the ‘Breakthrough Starshot project’?
‘Breakthrough initiatives’ is a scientific program which aims at exploring the vast universe. The programme is a research initiative, which enables the development of a proof-of-concept fleet of light sail spacecraft named StarChip. In simple words, Stephen Hawking and a group of scientists want to send a tiny spacecraft to the nearest star by using laser beams. In order to begin the project, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner invested 100 million dollars into ‘Starshot’. In August 2016, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) detected a planet orbiting the third star in the Alpha Centauri system. This planet was named ‘Proxima Centauri b‘. It was seen orbiting the habitable zone of its star ‘Proxima Centauri‘. The breakthrough star shot project labels the above planet as one of its main target planets.
By the looks of it, the idea looks extremely fascinating. But, is it that easy to propel a spacecraft to another star which lies 4.37 light years away? That approximates to about 25 trillion miles away from earth!
Debunking the ‘Breakthrough Starshot project’
Laser propulsion or photonics propulsion is a method of sending lasers into space. By using lasers, one can propel an object in space at an extremely fast rate. But, in case of the star shot project, is a normal laser beam enough to propel an ordinary spacecraft? In order to resolve the above problem, scientists came up with the idea of using a large laser beam and a small spacecraft. In this manner, one can potentially transmit enough force to the probe. This will make the probe move very fast. Researchers plan to create an interstellar spacecraft called ‘StarChip’ on a nano-scale. This chip is also meant to hold a number of miniaturised spacecraft components like cameras, power supplies, and communication systems. This interstellar spacecraft is in turn connected to a reflective sail which is about 4mX4m wide and is only a few atoms thick.
Once this nano spacecraft is positioned in orbit space, the lasers are turned on. In order to create a strong impact, an array of laser amplifiers needs to be constructed on earth. These amplifiers stretch across an area of about one square kilometre. A laser is fed into one of the laser amplifiers. The amplifiers break the laser into thousands of beams. These beams are then adjusted according to the required angle and direction to form one strong beam of the laser. This laser beam then travels through the earth atmosphere and hits the reflective sail. The laser beam is projected on the sail for a time period of about of 3-5 minutes. The beam propels the probe at one-fifth the speed of light, which would mean that the probe would reach Alpha Centauri in 20 years.
What kind of challenges will the ‘Starshot project’ face?
Light propulsion on such a big scale has not yet been developed. Miniaturisation of spacecraft components is a major challenge. Creating a communication system which can hold the data of four light years is extremely hard. The pathway through which the sail propels is not a clear one. It may encounter a lot of interstellar dust. Since the probe is moving at a very fast rate, hitting a tiny puff of interstellar dust can create a huge impact. Thus, the sail needs to be fitted with a redundancy system. This system will enable it to withstand few collisions on its way to Alpha Centauri. Along with the above-stated properties, the sail needs to be rugged in nature to withstand the intense accelerations. It also needs to be extremely reflective to prevent excessive absorption of the incident laser beam.
NASA’s solution for space radiation
One of the major problems that the interstellar spacecraft will encounter is space radiation. The entire mission could be ruined if the miniature electronic parts on the spacecraft are hit and fried by space radiations. In a normal spacecraft, the electronic components are covered with shields for protection. But, in this mission, the addition of shields in the spacecraft will make it heavier. Thus, it will hinder its fast movement. Thus, researchers from NASA and Korean Institute of Science recommend the use of self-healing technology or self-healing electronics. The researchers tested a nano-wire transistor of a particular material. This wire produced an annealing effect, an effect that healed radiation damage. For the above concept to work, the spacecraft would have to power down every few years for the process of self-repairing. This will, in turn, prolong the life of the spacecraft till it reaches Alpha Centauri.
The mission is in its early stages. If scientists are able to overcome all the above difficulties and develop ‘StarChip’, maybe we can look forward to moving to a whole new world!
Featured Image Source: Pexels
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