Plotting the interstellar path to Proxima Centauri


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Scientists have calculated the slingshot route that Breakthrough Starshot’s tiny interstellar spacecraft should take in order to reach Proxima Centauri while also gathering the maximum scientific data while zipping past the binary stars of Alpha Centauri.

The solution is for the probe’s sail to be redeployed upon arrival so that the spacecraft would be optimally decelerated by the incoming radiation from the stars in the Alpha Centauri system. René Heller, an astrophysicist working on preparations for the upcoming Exoplanet mission PLATO, found a congenial spirit in IT specialist Michael Hippke, who set up the computer simulations. The two scientists based their calculations on a space probe weighing less than 100 grams in total, which is mounted to a 100,000-square-metre sail, equivalent to the area of 14 soccer fields. During the approach to Alpha Centauri, the braking force would increase. The stronger the braking force, the more effectively the spacecraft’s speed can be reduced upon arrival. Vice versa, the same physics could be used to accelerate the sail at departure from the solar system, using the sun as a photon cannon.

The tiny spacecraft would first need to approach the star Alpha Centauri A as close as around four million kilometres, corresponding to five stellar radii, at a maximum speed of 13,800 kilometres per second (4.6 per cent of the speed of light). At even higher speeds, the probe would simply overshoot the star.

While most of this is hardly revolutionary, this is still the first time anyone has done the hard math based upon a real mission concept.

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2 comments

  • LocalFluff

    Human interstellar travel might not be as hard as traditionally understood. We are quickly increasing our average age and immortality can be just a fairly simple genetic engineering away. If you live forever you might not care so much about spending a thousand years going to a neighboring star. You could spend that time reading all papers ever published on physics. You could work and save a thousand years until the trip to afford it.

    Immortality is coming and it will change society fundamentally. Maybe there will be no families. Without pensions and with a very different risk valuation (you really don’t want to die in an accident), the financial markets will be different. I’ve heard that people actually don’t get a worse memory with age (unless they are hit by some disease), it is just harder to keep track of all the information we accumulate every day. A thousands of years old human would be a very powerful being.

  • jburn

    Local,
    you bring up an interesting perspective regarding immortality (baring an accidental or intentional death event). Combined with a vastly longer life, we may also merge with machines. Reading all papers ever published may take far less time than currently imagined.

    If we were to achieve extraordinarily long lives, it may encourage (or perhaps mandate) our push outward into space. Where else can we find virtually unlimited energy, materials and area (space) to grow such a civilization other than moving beyond a single planet.

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