Stephen Hawking's Nanocrafts Could Reach Mars in 30 Minutes

Friday, 15 April 2016 - 12:27PM
Technology
Mars
Friday, 15 April 2016 - 12:27PM
Stephen Hawking's Nanocrafts Could Reach Mars in 30 Minutes
Stephen Hawking just announced Breakthrough Starshot, an initiative funded by billionaire Yuri Milner to build tiny, light-powered "nanocrafts" that could reach Alpha Centauri within a generation and revolutionize our search for alien life. But before that happens, the project is aiming a little bit smaller (if you can call it that) by exploring areas in our own solar system. If the technology develops as researchers predict, then we could be sending tiny "star-chips" to Mars in a mere half-hour.

According to Hawking and Milner, the proposed nanocrafts would be propelled by many solar sails on their surfaces, powered by an array of powerful lasers on Earth. The spacecrafts would be able to travel at near-relativistic speeds, allowing them to reach interstellar space on a human timescale. But that level of technology could take a few more decades to develop, so in the meantime, the researchers will set their sights on our own solar system in order to test the probes in a multitude of relatively low-risk missions. 
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"As we build larger arrays with higher and higher power levels that can shoot things out at higher and higher speeds, the logical place to first send them is elsewhere in the solar system," Breakthrough Starshot advisor Philip Lubin, an experimental cosmologist at UC Santa Barbara, told Popular Science.
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A gram-scale model (that could potentially be mass-produced at the cost of an iPhone) would theoretically be able to reach 25% of lightspeed with 10 minutes of lasing. At this speed, the spacecraft could reach Alpha Centauri, the closest star to Earth other than our Sun, in only 20 years, and could reach Mars in only 30 minutes.

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"Once you get this technology, it will allow you to fly missions any place in the solar system at remarkably fast speeds," said NASA fellow Geoff Landis. "Right now we've gotten pretty good at getting elsewhere in the inner solar system, like Mars and Venus, but when it comes to the outer solar system, especially Uranus and beyond, it can take an awful long time to get there, and sending probes with very high velocities that can get there in days would be quite an amazing thing."
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