Stephen Hawking, Yuri Milner Plan To Send Tiny Interstellar Probes To Alpha Centauri: What Are Potential Problems?


High profile names such as Stephen Hawking, Mark Zuckerberg and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner are keeping their hopes up for one of the most ambitious space projects ever: sending tiny interstellar space probes to visit the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri.

Known as the Breakthrough Starshot project, the plan is to use a giant laser situated on our planet to push a fleet of nano spacecraft to nearly the speed of light.

If successful, the iPhone-sized probes are estimated to cross the void within two decades - an incredible feat for interstellar travel. It will take four years for the data to be transmitted home.

The audacious project is truly exciting, but experts say it is not immune to potential issues.

Do They Have A Permit For Planetary Laser?

A 100-gigawatt laser on Earth is supposed to push the tiny Starshot probes to accelerate almost at the speed of light. However, such a laser would be powerful enough to destroy anything, frying orbital satellites in its wake.

Starshot project leader Pete Worden, director of NASA's Ames Research Center, said they won't fire when satellites are in the way.

"We anticipate that there would be international agreements in control of this," said Worden, believing that the world will take the Starshot project with a grain of salt.

Worden and his colleagues will work with countries to get the necessary permits.

Is It Really Cheaper?

Milner, whose first name is that of the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, has already invested $100 million of his own money into the Starshot project.

In the space industry, this amount is only crumbs. NASA's New Horizons probe was built at $722 million, and was able to fly by Pluto, which is about three billion light years away.

Three billion light years is only 0.012 percent of the distance between Earth and Alpha Centauri, which is located 25 trillion light years away. It would cost seven times as much as Milner's pledged funding to actually reach the star system.

Milner is aware of this, but he hopes that his seed money can at least kick-start the project.

What Would Happen To Distress Signals From Far, Far Away?

The Starshot team hopes that about 1,000 mini-spacecraft will be launched in the next decade. However, one problem is that once these tiny probes leave the solar system, they will be on their own more than ever.

Communications between our planet and the Starshot probes cannot happen faster than the speed of light, and so if one of the probes faces trouble a light year into its space journey, then it will take about a year for its distress signal to reach Earth. It will then take another year before instructions from the Starshot mission control team to reach the tiny craft.

If this is the case, the probe would have either fixed itself or died completely.

What Is The Team's Main Priority?

There is still no technology that could allow something as small as a postage stamp or an iPhone to transmit a signal across trillions of miles of interstellar space. This is one of the main priorities of the Starshot team.

But why is sending data so important? Bruce Betts of the Planetary Science said that without an effective way to send data home, the mission could end in failure.

"If you could fly to a forest, and you could see a tree fall, but you can't mention to anyone," added Betts, "did it really matter?"

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