Russian billionaire backs interstellar project

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The competition heats up: A Russian billionaire has announced a $100 million investment in an effort to use lasers to propel cellphone-sized spacecraft on an interstellar voyage to Alpha Centauri.

Called Breakthrough Starshot, the programme is based on an idea that has been around for decades: the solar sail. The theory is that a lightweight space sail could harness the momentum carried by photons in order to travel without fuel.

The Breakthrough Starshot team is betting that a burst of concentrated lasers, fired from the ground, could rapidly accelerate a mobile-phone-sized device equipped with microelectronics and a tiny sail — providing much more energy than could be harnessed from the Sun. Whereas NASA’s plutonium-powered New Horizons spacecraft took nine years to reach Pluto, the “nanocraft” envisioned by Breakthrough Starshot would pass by the dwarf planet and exit the Solar System in three days.

The project’s initial US$100-million budget covers only research and development of such a spacecraft. But Breakthrough Starshot’s ultimate goal is to demonstrate proof of concept for an international programme that would send a fleet of nanocraft into space. Doing so would require the group to surmount enormous scientific and engineering challenges in developing the necessary laser technology, materials and communications systems.

This technology is related though not identical to an earlier story about using lasers to power spacecraft.


  • Laurie

    Great – drones in space …

  • Dick Eagleson

    If a phone rings in space and there’s no Millennial around to be hypnotized by it, does it make a sound?

  • Gealon

    Ok, silly question that I don’t expect an answer to, but, why? What possible use can a cell phone sized probe be? It will have neither the power to communicate back to Earth at a four light-year distance, neither would it have the ability to slow down once it reaches the Alpha Centauri system. It would fly by without ever returning any science. Not to mention that it’s small size would make it tremendously more susceptible to damage by cosmic rays then our already fragile larger probes are. What would power it for it’s multi year cruise? Would it be under laser beam the entire trip or just for the initial push? This tiny laser that is supposed to beam back power, how do they expect that to work at interstellar distances? Last I checked we fire multi kilowatt lasers at reflectors on the moon to get accurate ranging data and the return signal is just a few photons. A cell phone with a laser pen glued on the side is not going to have the power to transmit across those distances.

    I’m sorry to be the skeptic in the room but there is a reason machines are built on the scales that they are. Nanosats and the like are fine for LEO, they don’t need to do much in the form of propulsion, they aren’t transmitting over long distances and they are within the protective magnetic field of Earth. Larger, more robust machines are needed for planetary exploration because they operate so far from home and without any possibility of repair if damaged. I liken the scales of these machines to ages of people. Nanosats are like infants. You can put them in a play pen and feel reasonably safe that they can explore it without hurting themselves. Larger probes like Mars Odyssey, MRO, Opportunity, etc, they are toddlers, maybe even early teenagers. You can send them to the neighbor’s house to pick up a bag of sugar or let their dog out. The Centauri system is neither a playpen nor the neighbor’s house. It is that rough and tumble part of town a few miles away. You would not send your baby to such a place, heck you wouldn’t even send your thirteen year old. Going that kind of distance into such an environment where a robust design and plenty of redundancy are mandatory is not the job of child probes, it is the job of an adult and we simply aren’t there yet.

    Now while it is nice to see solar sail technology being looked at, until it can be implemented on a scale large enough to propel something the size of the ISS, maybe a little larger or smaller, it is not suited for sending probes outside the solarsystem because you will need that size, even in a robotic craft, just to ensure that it is functioning when it reaches it’s destination and has the power and ability to communicate useful science data back, even if it is only a flyby.

  • Wayne

    Gealon: Nicely presented!
    Dick Eagleson: intriguing question!

    Now, if the proposal would be, to put more Cat’s in Space (and drop them), I’m totally on board with that adventure!

  • Edward

    Gealon asked, “Ok, silly question that I don’t expect an answer to, but, why?”

    I’m not sure that “why” is ever a silly question (but when it is repeatedly asked by a three-year old after each answer, it certainly is more annoying than clever).

    I think that this is more of a proof-of-concept program rather than a scientific program. It is more like Sputnik 1 than Explorer 1. Sputnik merely radioed a beep, but Explorer found the Van Allen belts.

    In recent years, we have found ways to pull signals out of noise, so the return signal is not completely hopeless. Small telescopes do not give good resolution, but one on this probe may give us better than we have now. There are a number of other experiments that may fit on a small probe, so there is a possibility of getting a little science back — especially about interstellar space.

    Is the science worth the cost of building the sail, lasers, and power supply? Probably not, but neither was the science on Sputnik (there was none), but the experience should teach us a lot for next time.

  • Gealon

    Edward, I think we are both in agreement that this is more of a political venture then a scientific one, as I point out that such miniscule probes would be virtually useless past the boundaries of our solar system and you liken the effort to Sputnik 1, which was purely a political play. I’m not saying the effort might not one day be worth while, proving out the technology now for later use. But cell phone sized probes beyond the solar system, I don’t see it. Maybe for student projects like flybys of the moon, but not beyond our system, their size makes them just too easy to damage.

  • Edward

    One concern that I have about this project is our lack of experience with solar sails. There have been few attempts to test them in orbit; I believe that I have only heard of two. Controlling a large structure, such as a sail, will require much more experience than we currently have, and controlling it under the conditions of great power and acceleration will certainly require experience. As it gets farther away from Earth, keeping the laser pointed in the proper direction will also become problematic, as the feedback delay would result in missing the sail if small misalignments of the sail make it accelerate even slightly in an unexpected direction.

    To me, talk like this is like suggesting building the Concord SST right after the first couple of Wright brothers flights. It is better as a goal than as an immediate project.

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