Here's How Stephen Hawking's Interstellar Nanocraft Will Help Us Find Alien LIfe

Wednesday, 13 April 2016 - 11:21AM
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Wednesday, 13 April 2016 - 11:21AM
Here's How Stephen Hawking's Interstellar Nanocraft Will Help Us Find Alien LIfe

Yesterday, Stephen Hawking and billionaire Yuri Milner announced Breakthrough Starshot, a project that aims to build tiny, light-powered "nanocrafts" that could travel to interstellar space. The technology is still partially speculative as of now, but if we manage to build a nanocraft, it could revolutionize our search for extraterrestrial life.

The proposed nanocraft would be a tiny, iPhone-sized (and hopefully priced) space probe that would travel in swarms to send scientific data back to Earth about all the nooks and crannies of our Universe. The craft would be powered by many miniature solar sails, which would, in turn, be powered by an array of powerful lasers. A gram-scale model would theoretically be able to reach 20% of lightspeed (100 million km per hour), which is 1000 times the speed of the fastest spacecraft today. At this speed, the spacecraft could reach Alpha Centauri, the closest star to Earth other than our Sun, in only 20 years. 

Hawking and Milner admitted upfront that some of this technology depends on futuristic developments (that are nevertheless considered likely to happen). While advancements in metamaterials, nanotechnology, and laser technology have made it feasible in the near future, we still have a ways to go, and Phil Lubin, the scientist who first proposed the idea of tiny interstellar spacecrafts to the Breakthrough Initiative, believes it will take about "20 to 30 years" before we're able to send swarms of solar-powered satellites to space.


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"We've never phased up an array [of lasers] of that size," Lubin told Popular Science. "There's no reason it shouldn't work, but there's a lot of reasons it could be difficult to make it work, including mundane things like phase variations in the fibers due to temperature fluctuations, small microphonic variations in the structure.… All kinds of really nasty technical problems. That's not going to be easy to solve."
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Plus, it will be extremely expensive, much more expensive than Milner's initial investment of $100 million. It may require CERN-levels of funding, and so it depends on the attraction of up to billions of dollars of investment.

But that being said, there's nothing precluding this technology from becoming a reality, which is exciting enough in itself. And while the initial development will be very expensive, the production of these probes will be extremely cheap and convenient, which would drastically change our methods of searching for alien life. 

Opening quote
"This basically opens the door to missions that are much less expensive and cumbersome, that will allow us to get information currently not retrievable," Avi Loeb, chair of the Harvard astronomy department and a collaborator on Breakthrough Starshot, told Gizmodo.
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If we were able to mass-produce space probes and launch them to space for a relative pittance, we could send little scouts to every nearby location we've speculated could hold alien life. Flying at relativistic speeds could send us anywhere in the solar system in a matter of days, so nanocrafts could be exploring Europa, Enceladus, and Titan, as well as scouring asteroids for signs of organic life. 
Opening quote
"The ability to build very very small spacecraft and send them at high speeds gives us the ability to send a lot of spacecraft to a lot of places," said Pete Worden, executive director of Breakthrough Starshot and the former director of NASA's Ames Research Center. "Asteroids might be a place where there's lots of evidence of life. This enables us to sample thousands if not hundreds of thousands of them."
Closing quote

But even if there is no life in our immediate surroundings, our Solar System is only a tiny portion of the Universe. Interstellar travel on a human time scale would change everything, as it would allow us to explore the entire cosmos beyond our own backyard. It's becoming increasingly likely that if there's life out there, we'll find it, and finally answer the question of whether we're alone in the Universe.

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