Nanocraft: Exploring Alpha Centauri

We have barely stepped off our planet and a proposal has been made to attempt to step out of our solar system as well.

Breakthrough Initiatives, a company founded by billionaire venture capitalist Yuri Milner has proposed sending a nanocraft to Alpha Centauri. At at a distance of 4.37 light years from Earth Alpha Centauri is our closest star-neighbor.

Our fundamental frame of reference about our place in the universe is about to change in a manner somewhat analogous to what Polynesians must have experienced when their outriggers made landfall on a strange island after days or weeks at sea. It’s not just what they discovered when they got there: it was the fact that there was a “there”. There world was suddenly immeasurably larger, their own size and importance in somehow diminished.

The journey is commensurate with our technology. In some way we face some of the same issues the Polynesians faced. We have to take life with us as we go. Not fishing lines but freezers. Dried grain and fruits in plastic containers and bags instead of baskets and jars. Or maybe synthesized by an advanced 3D printer!

The difference is of course that they were still breathing air and living under the same sun. Their scale was measured in days at sea. The scale we face today is measured in lifetimes.

Breakthrough Initiatives was founded by Yuri Milner, a billionaire venture capitalist who began his career as a physicist and then migrated to business. His venture capital firm introduced US internet business models to Russian companies.

In addition to Milner, the company’s board of directors includes Stephen Hawking and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

Breakthrough Initiatives describes its mission to fly to Alpha Centauri in these words:

Breakthrough Starshot is a $100 million research and engineering program aiming to demonstrate proof of concept for a new technology, enabling ultra-light unmanned space flight at 20% of the speed of light; and to lay the foundations for a flyby mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation.

Breakthrough Initiatives estimates that present propulsion technology could make the trip to Alpha Centauri in 30,000 years. Using their proposed light sail propulsion to power a nanocraft would reduce the trip to about thirty years.

Data including pictures would take four plus years to return to us at the speed of light but we would have our first look at another star system.

A nanocraft is a hold-in-the-palm-of your-hand size spacecraft packed with micro technology.

Breakthrough Initiatives describes nanocraft as follows:

Nanocrafts are gram-scale robotic spacecrafts comprising two main parts:

StarChip: Moore’s law has allowed a dramatic decrease in the size of microelectronic components. This creates the possibility of a gram-scale wafer, carrying cameras, photon thrusters, power supply, navigation and communication equipment, and constituting a fully functional space probe.

Lightsail: Advances in nanotechnology are producing increasingly thin and light-weight metamaterials, promising to enable the fabrication of meter-scale sails no more than a few hundred atoms thick and at gram-scale mass.

The “Moore’s law” referred to on the quote is the prediction made by Gordon E. Moore, co-founder of Intel that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit will double every two years.

Zac Manchester, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard points to the development in the miniaturization of certain technologies which allow for the creation of a nanocraft, particularly advances in cell phone, car fobs and Wii technology. He has designed a nanocraft with an all in cost of $20.00. Manchester has created an interesting and informative video about nanocraft which you can view by clicking on the Video page.Nano00002

Despite the fact that most of the technology seems to be at hand, Breakthrough Initiative’s plan calls for further development:

The research and engineering phase is expected to last a number of years. Following that, development of the ultimate mission to Alpha Centauri would require a budget comparable to the largest current scientific experiments, and would involve:

Building a ground-based kilometer-scale light beamer at high altitude in dry conditions
Generating and storing a few gigawatt hours of energy per launch
Launching a ‘mothership’ carrying thousands of nanocrafts to a high-altitude orbit
Taking advantage of adaptive optics technology in real time to compensate for atmospheric effects
Focusing the light beam on the lightsail to accelerate individual nanocrafts to the target speed within minutes
Accounting for interstellar dust collisions en-route to the target
Capturing images of a planet, and other scientific data, and transmitting them back to Earth using a compact on-board laser communications system
Using the same light beamer that launched the nanocrafts to receive data from them over 4 years later.

What’s interesting is that the same principle which drove Polynesian islanders to reach out across the ocean into the unknown drives us Earth islanders today to reach out across the ocean of space.

Once launched the nanocraft would “sail” its way to Alpha Centauri, much as its Polynesian outrigger canoes sailed it way across the Pacific thousands of years ago.

As then the journey will expand our human experience in ways which will alter our perception of ourselves and our place in the universe.

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