What Would a Camera on a Breakthrough Starshot Spacecraft See if it’s Going at High Velocity?

In April of 2016, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announced the creation of Breakthrough Starshot. As part of his non-profit scientific organization (known as Breakthrough Initiatives), the purpose of Starshot was to design a lightsail nanocraft that would be capable of achieving speeds of up to 20% the speed of light and reaching the nearest star system – Alpha Centauri (aka. Rigel Kentaurus) – within our lifetimes.

At this speed – roughly 60,000 km/s (37,282 mps) – the probe would be able to reach Alpha Centauri in 20 years, where it could then capture images of the star and any planets orbiting it. But according to a recent article by Professor Bing Zhang, an astrophysicist from the University of Nevada, researchers could get all kinds of valuable data from Starshot and similar concepts long before they ever reached their destination.

The article appeared in The Conversation under the title “Observing the universe with a camera traveling near the speed of light“. The article was a follow-up to a study conducted by Prof. Zhang and Kunyang Li – a graduate student from the Center for Relativistic Astrophysics at the Georgia Institute of Technology – that appeared in The Astrophysical Journal (titled “Relativistic Astronomy“).

Prof. Albert Einstein at the 11th Josiah Willard Gibbs lecture at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1934. Credit: AP Photo

To recap, Breakthrough Starshot seeks to leverage recent technological developments to mount an interstellar mission that will reach another star within a single generation. The spacecraft would consist of an ultra-light nanocraft and a lightsail, the latter of which would accelerated by a ground-based laser array up to speeds of hundreds of kilometers per second.

Such a system would allow the tiny spacecraft to conduct a flyby mission of Alpha Centauri in about 20 years after it is launched, which could then beam home images of possible planets and other scientific data (such as analysis of magnetic fields). Recently, Breakthrough Starshot held an “industry day” where they submitted a Request For Proposals (RFP) to potential bidders to build the laser sail.

According to Zhang, a lightsail-driven nanocraft traveling at a portion of the speed of light would also be a good way to test Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity.  Simply put, this law states that the speed of light in a vacuum is constant, regardless of the inertial reference frame or motion of the source. In short, such a spacecraft would be able to take advantage of the features of Special Relativity and provide a new mode to study astronomy.

Based on Einstein’s theory, different objects in different “rest frames” would have different measures of the lengths of space and time. In this sense, an object moving at relativistic speeds would view distant astronomical objects differently as light emissions from these objects would be distorted. Whereas objects in front of the spacecraft would have the wavelength of their light shortened, objects behind it would have them lengthened.

This diagram shows the difference between unshifted, redshifted and blueshifted targets. Credit: NASA

This phenomenon, known as the “Doppler Effect”, results in light being shifted towards the blue end (“blueshift”) or the red end (“redshift”) of the spectrum for approaching and retreating objects, respectively. In 1929, astronomer Edwin Hubble used redshift measurements to determine that distant galaxies were moving away from our own, thus demonstrating that the Universe was in a state of expansion.

Because of this expansion (known as the Hubble Expansion), much of the light in the Universe is redshifted and only measurable in difficult-to-observe infrared wavelengths. But for a camera moving at relativistic speeds, according to Prof. Zhang, this redshifted light would become bluer since the motion of the camera would counteract the effects of cosmic expansion.

This effect, known as “Doppler boosting”, would cause the faint light from the early Universe to be amplified and allow distant objects to be studied in more detail. In this respect, astronomers would be able to study some of the earliest objects in the known Universe, which would offer more clues as to how it evolved over time. As Prof. Zhang explained to Universe Today via email, this would allow for some unique opportunities to test Special Relativity:

“In the rest frame of the camera, the emission of the objects in the hemisphere of the camera motion is blue-shifted. For bright objects with detailed spectral observations from the ground, one can observe them in flight. By comparing their blue-shifted flux at a specific blue-shifted frequency with the flux of the corresponding (de-blueshifted) frequency on the ground, one can precisely test the Doppler boosting prediction in Special Relativity.”
Observed image of nearby galaxy M51 (left) and how the image would look through a camera moving at half the speed of light (right). Credit: Zhang & Li, 2018, The Astrophysical Journal, 854, 123, CC BY-ND

In addition, the frequency and intensity of light – and also the size of distant objects – would also change as far as the observer was concerned. In this respect, the camera would act as a lens and a wide-field camera, magnifying the amount of light it collects and letting astronomers observe more objects within the same field of view. By comparing the observations collected by the camera to those collected by a camera from the ground, astronomers could also test the probe’s Lorentz Factor.

This factor indicates how time, length, and relativistic mass change for an object while that object is moving, which is another prediction of Special Relativity. Last, but not least, Prof. Zhang indicates that probes traveling at relativistic speeds would not need to be sent to any specific destination in order to conduct these tests. As he explained:

“The concept of “relativistic astronomy” is that one does not really need to send the cameras to specific star systems. No need to aim (e.g. to Alpha Centauri system), no need to decelerate. As long as the signal can be transferred back to earth, one can learn a lot of things. Interesting targets include high-redshift galaxies, active galactic nuclei, gamma-ray bursts, and even electromagnetic counterparts of gravitational waves.”

However, there are some drawbacks to this proposal. For starters, the technology behind Starshot is all about accomplishing the dream of countless generations – i.e. reaching another star system (in this case, Alpha Centauri) – within a single generation.

And as Professor Abraham Loeb – the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University and the Chair and the Breakthrough Starshot Committee – told Universe Today via email, what Prof. Zhang is proposing can be accomplished by other means:

>“Indeed, there are benefits to having a camera move near the speed of light toward faint sources, such as the most distant dwarf galaxies in the early universe. But the cost of launching a camera to the required speed would be far greater than building the next generation of large telescopes which will provide us with a similar sensitivity. Similarly, the goal of testing special relativity can be accomplished at a much lower cost.”

Of course, it will be many years before a project like Starshot can be mounted, and many challenges need to be addressed in the meantime. But it is exciting to know that in meantime, scientific applications can be found for such a mission that go beyond exploration. In a few decades, when the mission begins to make the journey to Alpha Centauri, perhaps it will also be able to conduct tests on Special Relativity and other physical laws while in transit.

Further Reading: The Conversation, The Astrophysical Journal

Chandra Observatory Checks to Make Sure Alpha Centauri is Safe, You Know, in Case We Decide to Visit

At distance of just 4.367 light years, the triple star system of Alpha Centauri (Alpha Centauri A+B and Proxima Centauri) is the closest star system to our own. In 2016, researchers from the European Southern Observatory announced the discovery of Proxima b, a rocky planet located within the star’s habitable zone and the closest exoplanet to our Solar System. However, whether or not Alpha Centauri has any potentially habitable planets remains a mystery.

Between 2012 and 2015, three possible candidates were announced in this system, but follow-up studies cast doubt on their existence. Looking to resolve this mystery, Tom Ayres – a senior research associate and Fellow at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy – conducted a study of Alpha Centauri based on over a decade’s worth of observations, with encouraging results!

The results of this study were presented at the 232rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society, which took place in Denver, Colorado, from June 3rd to June 7th. The study was based on ten years worth of monitoring of Alpha Centauri, which was provided the Chandra X-ray Observatory. This data indicated that any planets that orbit Alpha Centauri A and B are not likely to be bombarded by large amounts of X-ray radiation.

The two brightest stars of the Centaurus constellation – (left) Alpha Centauri and (right) Beta Centauri. The faint red star in the center of the red circle is Proxima Centauri. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Skatebiker

This is good news as far as Alpha Centauri’s potential habitability goes since X-rays and related Space Weather effects are harmful to unprotected life. Not only can high doses of radiation be lethal to living creatures, they can also strip away planetary atmospheres. According to data provided by the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiter, this  is precisely what happened to Mars between 4.2 and 3.7 billion years ago.

As Tom Ayres explained in a recent Chandra press release:

“Because it is relatively close, the Alpha Centauri system is seen by many as the best candidate to explore for signs of life. The question is, will we find planets in an environment conducive to life as we know it?”

The stars in the Alpha Centauri system (A and B) are quite similar to our Sun and orbit relatively close to each other. Alpha Centauri A, a G2 V (yellow dwarf) star, is the most Sun-like of the two, being 1.1 times the mass and 1.519 times the luminosity of the Sun. Alpha Centauri B is somewhat smaller and cooler, at 0.907 times the Sun’s mass and 0.445 times its visual luminosity.

As such, the odds that the system could support an Earth-like planet are pretty good, especially around Alpha Centauri A. According to the Chandra data, the prospects for life (based on X-ray bombardment) are actually better for any planet orbiting Alpha Centauri A than for the Sun, and Alpha Centauri B is only slightly worse. This is certainly good news for those who are hoping that a potentially habitable exoplanet is found in close proximity to the Solar System.

The respective habitable zones around Alpha Centauri A and B. Credit: Planetary Habitability Laboratory

When the existence of Proxima b was first announced, there was naturally much excitement. Not only did this planet orbit within it’s star’s habitable zone, but it was the closest known exoplanet to Earth. Subsequent studies, however, revealed that Proxima Centauri is variable and unstable by nature, which makes it unlikely that Proxima b could maintain an atmosphere or life on its surface. As Ayers explained:

“This is very good news for Alpha Cen AB in terms of the ability of possible life on any of their planets to survive radiation bouts from the stars. Chandra shows us that life should have a fighting chance on planets around either of these stars.”

Meanwhile, astronomers continue to search for exoplanets around Alpha Centauri A and B, but without success. The problem with this system is the orbit of the pair, which has drawn the two bright stars close together in the sky over the past decade. To help determine if Alpha Centauri was hospitable to life, astronomers began conducting a long-term observation campaign with Chandra in 2005.

As the only X-ray observatory capable of resolving Alpha Centauri A and B during its current close orbital approach, Chandra observed these two main stars every six months for the past thirteen years. These long-term measurements captured a full cycle of increases and decreases in X-ray activity, in much the same way that the Sun has an 11-year sunspot cycle.

What these observations showed was that any planet orbiting within the habitable zone of A would receive (on average) a lower dose of X-rays compared to similar planets around the Sun. For planets orbiting withing the habitable zone of B, the X-ray dose they received would be about five times higher. Meanwhile, planets orbiting within Proxima Centauri’s habitable zone would get an average of 500 times more X-rays, and 50,000 times more during a big flare.

In addition to providing encouraging hints about Alpha Centauri’s possible habitability, the X-ray observations provided by Chandra could also go a long way towards informing astronomers about our Sun’s X-ray activity. Understanding this is key to learning more about space weather and the threat they can pose to human infrastructure, as well as other technologically-advanced civilizations.

In the meantime, astronomers continue to search for exoplanets around Alpha Centauri A and B. Knowing that they have a good chance of supporting life will certainly make any future exploration of this system (like Project Starshot) all the more lucrative!

Some of the study’s results also appeared in the January issue in the Research Notes of the American Astronomical Society, titled “Alpha Centauri Beyond the Crossroads“. And be sure to enjoy this video about Alpha Centauri’s potential habitability, courtesy of the Chandra X-ray Observatory:

Further Reading: Chandra X-ray Observatory

Astronomers Figure Out a New Way to Search for Planets at Alpha Centauri

At a distance of 4.37 light-years from Earth, Alpha Centauri is the nearest star system to our own. For generations, scientists and speculative thinkers have pondered whether it might have a planetary system like our own Sun, and whether or not life may also exist there. Unfortunately, recent efforts to locate extra-solar planets in this star system have failed, with potential detections later shown to be the result of artifacts in the data.

In response to these failed efforts, several more ambitious projects are being developed to find exoplanets around Alpha Centauri. These include direct-imaging space telescopes like Project Blue and the interstellar mission known as Breakthrough Starshot. But according to a new study led by researchers from Yale University, existing data can be used to determine the probability of planets in this system (and even which kind).

The study which detailed their findings recently appeared in The Astronomical Journal under the title “Planet Detectability in the Alpha Centauri System“. The study was led by Lily Zhao, a graduate student from Yale University and a fellow with the National Science Foundation (NSF), and was co-authored by Debora Fischer, John Brewer and Matt Giguere of Yale and Bárbara Rojas-Ayala of the Universidad Andrés Bello in Chile.

Artist’s impression of what the surface might look like on a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri system. Credit: Michael S. Helfenbein

For the sake of their study, Zhao and her team considered why efforts to locate planets within the the closest star system to our own have so far failed. This is surprising when one considers how, statistically speaking, Alpha Centauri is very likely to have a system if its own. As Prof. Fischer indicated in a recent Yale News press release:

The universe has told us the most common types of planets are small planets, and our study shows these are exactly the ones that are most likely to be orbiting Alpha Centauri A and B… Because Alpha Centauri is so close, it is our first stop outside our solar system. There’s almost certain to be small, rocky planets around Alpha Centauri A and B.”

In addition to being a professor of astronomy at Yale University, Debora Fischer is also one of the leaders of the Yale Exoplanets Group. As an expert in her field, Fischer has devoted decades of her life to researching exoplanets and searching for Earth analogues beyond our Solar System. With partial funding provided by NASA and the National Science Foundation, the team relied on existing data collected by some of the latest exoplanet-hunting instruments.

These included CHIRON, a spectrograph mounted on the Small and Moderate Aperture Research Telescope System (SMARTS) at the Cerro Telolo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile. This instrument was built by Fischer’s team, and the data it provided was combined with the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) and the Ultraviolet and Visual Echelle Spectrograph (UVES) instruments on the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT).

Artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. The double star Alpha Centauri AB is visible to the upper right of Proxima itself. Credit: ESO

Using ten years of data collected by these instruments, Zhao and her colleagues then set up a grid system for the Alpha Centauri system. Rather than looking for signs of planets that did exist, they used the data to rule out what types of planets could not exist there. As Zhao told Universe Today via email:

“This study was special in that it used existing data of the Alpha Centauri system not to find planets, but to characterize what planets could not exist. By doing so, it returned more information about the system as a whole and provides guidance for future observations of this uniquely charismatic system. 

In addition, the team analyzed the chemical composition of the stars in the Alpha Centauri system to learn more about the kinds of material that would be available to form planets. Based on the different values obtained by observations campaigns conducted by different telescopes on Alpha Centauri’s three stars (Alpha, Beta and Proxima), they were able to place constraints on what kinds of planets could exist there. 

“We found that existing data rules out planets in the habitable zone above 53 Earth masses for alpha Centauri A, 8.4 Earth masses for Alpha Centauri B, and 0.47 Earth masses for Proxima Centauri,” said Zhao. “As for the chemical compositions, we found that the ratios of Carbon/Oxygen and Magnesium/Silicon for Alpha Centauri A and B are quite similar to that of the Sun.”

Artist’s impression of how the surface of a planet orbiting a red dwarf star may appear. Credit: M. Weiss/CfA

Basically, the results of their study effectively ruled out the possibility of any Jupiter-sized gas giants in the Alpha Centauri system. For Alpha Centauri A, they further found that planets that were less than 50 Earth masses could exist, while Alpha Centauri B might have planets smaller than 8 Earth masses. For Proxima Centauri, which we know to have at least one Earth-like planet, they determined that there might more that are less than half of Earth’s mass.

In addition to offering hope for exoplanet-hunters, this study carries with it some rather interesting implications for planetary habitability. Basically, the presence of rocky planets in the system is encouraging; but with no gas giants, a key ingredient in ensuring that planets remain habitable could be missing.

“[N]ot only could there still be habitable, Earth-mass planets around our closest stellar neighbors, but there also aren’t any gas giants that could endanger the survival of these potentially habitable, rocky planets,” said Zhao. “Furthermore, if these planets do exist, they are likely to have similar compositions to our very own Earth given the similarity in Alpha Cen A/B and our beloved Sun.”

At present, there are no instruments that have been able to confirm the existence of any exoplanets in Alpha Centauri. But as Zhao indicated, her and her teammates are optimistic that future surveys will have the necessary sensitivity to do it:

“[T]his very month has seen the commissioning of several next-generation instruments promising the precision necessary to discover these possible planets in the near future, and this analysis has shown that it is for sure worth it to keep looking!”

The ESO’s Paranal Observatory, located in the Atacama Desert of Chile. Credit: ESO

These include the ESO-built Echelle SPectrograph for Rocky Exoplanet and Stable Spectroscopic Observations (ESPRESSO) – which was recently installed at the Paranal Observatory – and the EXtreme PREcision Spectrometer (EXPRES) built at Yale University. This latter instrument is currently conducting an observation run at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, which Zhao is participating in.

“These instruments are promising a precision of down to 10-30 cm/s and should be able to detect many more smaller, and further away planets – such as habitable planets around the Centauri stars,” said Zhao. “The field of view of these two instruments are slightly different (ESPRESSO has the southern hemisphere, where Alpha Centauri is, while EXPRES covers the northern hemisphere, for instance where the Kepler and many of the K2 fields are).”

With new instruments at their disposal, and methods like the one Zhao and her team developed, the closest star system to Earth is sure to become a veritable treasure trove for astronomers and exoplanet-hunters in the coming years. And anything we find there will surely become targets for direct studies by groups like Project Blue and Breakthrough Starshot. If ET resides next door, we’re sure to hear about it soon!

Further Reading: Yale News, The Astronomical Journal

Could Magnetic Sails Slow an Interstellar Spacecraft Enough?

The number of confirmed extra-solar planets has increased by leaps and bounds in recent years. With every new discovery, the question of when we might be able to explore these planets directly naturally arises. There have been several suggestions so far, ranging from laser-sail driven nanocraft that would travel to Alpha Centauri in just 20 years (Breakthrough Starshot) to slower-moving microcraft equipped with a gene laboratories (The Genesis Project).

But when it comes to braking these craft so that they can slow down and study distant stars and orbit planets, things become a bit more complicated. According to a recent study by the very man who conceived of The Genesis Project – Professor Claudius Gros of the Institute for Theoretical Physics Goethe University Frankfurt – special sails that rely on superconductors to generate magnetic fields could be used for just this purpose.

Starshot and Genesis are similar in that both concepts seek to leverage recent advancements in miniaturization. Today, engineers are able to create sensors, thrusters and cameras that are capable of carrying out computations and other functions, but are a fraction of the size of older instruments. And when it comes to propulsion, there are many options, ranging from conventional rockets and ion drives to laser-driven light sails.

Project Starshot, an initiative sponsored by the Breakthrough Foundation, is intended to be humanity’s first interstellar voyage. Credit: breakthroughinitiatives.org

Slowing an interstellar mission down, however, has remained a more significant challenge because such a craft cannot be fitted with braking thrusters and fuel without increasing its weight. To address this, Professor Gros suggests using magnetic sails, which would present numerous advantages over other available methods. As Prof. Gros explained to Universe Today via email:

“Classically, you would equip the spacecraft with rocket engines. Normal rocket engines, as we are using them for launching satellites, can change the velocity only by 5-15 km/s. And even that only when using several stages. That is not enough to slow down a craft flying at 1000 km/s (0.3% c) or 100000 km/s (c/3). Fusion or antimatter drives would help a bit, but not substantially.”

The sail he envisions would consist of a massive superconducting loop that measures about 50 kilometers in diameter, which would create a magnetic field once a lossless current was induced. Once activated, the ionized hydrogen in the interstellar medium would be reflected off the sail’s magnetic field. This would have the effect of transferring the spacecraft’s momentum to the interstellar gas, gradually slowing it down.

According to Gros’ calculations, this would work for slow-travelling sails despite the extremely low particle density of interstellar space, which works out to 0.005 to 0.1 particles per cubic centimeter. “A magnetic sail trades energy consumption with time,” said Gros.”If you turn off the engine of your car and let it roll idle, it will slow down due to friction (air, tires). The magnetic sail does the same, where the friction comes from the interstellar gas.”

Artist concept of lightsail craft approaching the potentially habitable exoplanet Proxima b. Credit: PHL @ UPR Arecibo

One of the advantages of this method is the fact that can be built using existing technology. The key technology behind the magnetic sail is a Biot Savart loop which, when paired with the same kind of superconducting coils used in high-energy physics, would create a powerful magnetic field. Using such a sail, even heavier spacecraft – those that weight up to 1,500 kilograms (1.5 metric tonnes; 3,307 lbs) – could be decelerated from an interstellar voyage.

The one big drawback is the time such a mission would take. Based on Gros’ own calculations, a high speed transit to Proxima Centauri that relied on magnetic momentum braking would require a ship that weighed about 1 million kg (1000 metric tonnes; 1102 tons). However, an interstellar mission involving a 1.5 metric tonne ship would be able to reach TRAPPIST-1 in about 12,000 years. As Gros concludes:

“It takes a long time (because the very low density of the interstellar media). That is bad if you want to see a return (scientific data, exciting pictures) in your lifetime. Magnetic sails work, but only when you are happy to take the (very) long perspective.”

In other words, such a system would not work for a nanocraft like that envisioned by Breakthrough Starshot. As Starshot’s own Dr. Abraham Loeb explained, the main goal of the project is to achieve the dream of interstellar travel within a generation of the ship’s departure. In addition to being the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University, Dr. Loeb is also the Chair of the Breakthrough Starshot Advisory Committee.

A phased laser array, perhaps in the high desert of Chile, propels sails on their journey. Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives

As he explained to Universe Today via email:

“[Gros] concludes that breaking on the interstellar gas is feasible only at low speeds (less than a fraction of a percent of the speed of light) and even then one needs a sail that is tens of miles wide, weighting tons. The problem is that with such a low speed, the journey to the nearest stars will take over a thousand years.

“The Breakthrough Starshot initiative aims to launch a spacecraft at a fifth of the speed of light so that it will reach the nearest stars within a human lifetime. It is difficult to get people excited about a journey whose completion will not be witnessed by them. But there is a caveat. If the longevity of people could be extended to millennia by genetic engineering, then designs of the type considered by Gros would certainly be more appealing.”

But for missions like The Genesis Project, which Gros originally proposed in 2016, time is not a factor. Such a probe, which would carry single-celled organisms – either encoded in a gene factory or stored as cryogenically-frozen spores – a could take thousands of years to reach a neighboring star system. Once there, it would begin seeding planets that had been identified as “transiently habitable” with single-celled organisms.

For such a mission, travel time is not the all-important factor. What matters is the ability to slow down and establish orbit around a planet. That way, the spacecraft would be able to seed these nearby worlds with terrestrial organisms, which could have the effect of slowly terraforming it in advance of human explorers or settlers.

Given how long it would take for humans to reach even the nearest extra-solar planets, a mission that last a few hundred or a few thousand years is no big deal. In the end, which method we choose to conduct interstellar mission will come down to how much time we’re willing to invest. For the sake of exploration, expedience is the key factor, which means lightweight craft and incredibly high speeds.

But where long-term goals – such as seeding other worlds with life and even terraforming them for human settlement – are concerned, the slow and steady approach is best. One thing is for sure: when these types of missions move from the concept stage to realization, it sure will be exciting to witness!

Further Reading: Goete University Frankfurt, Journal of Physics Communications

Project Blue: Building a Space Telescope that Could Directly Observe Planets Around Alpha Centauri

In the past few decades, thousands of exoplanets have been discovered in neighboring star systems. In fact, as of October 1st, 2017, some 3,671 exoplanets have been confirmed in 2,751 systems, with 616 systems having more than one planet. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these have been detected using indirect means, ranging from Gravitational Microlensing to Transit Photometry and the Radial Velocity Method.

What’s more, we have been unable to study these planets up close because the necessary instruments do not yet exist. Project Blue, a consortium of scientists, universities and institutions, is looking to change that. Recently, they launched a crowdfunding campaign through Indiegogo to finance the development of a space telescope that will start looking for exoplanets in the Alpha Centauri system by 2021.

In addition to its commercial and academic partners, Project Blue is a collaborative effort between the BoldlyGo Institute, Mission Centaur, the SETI Institute, and the University of Massachusetts Lowell. It is steered by a Science & Technology Advisory Committee (STAC) composed of science and technology experts who are dedicated to space exploration and the search for life in our Universe.

Artist’s impression of a planet orbiting the star Alpha Centauri B, a member of the triple star system that is the closest to Earth. Credit: ESO

To accomplish their goal of directly studying exoplanets, Project Blue is seeking to leverage recent changes in space exploration, which include improved instruments and methodology, the rate at which exoplanet have been discovered in recent years, and increased collaboration between the private and public sector. As SETI Institute President and CEO Bill Diamond explained in a recent SETI press statement:

“Project Blue builds on recent research in seeking to show that Earth is not alone in the cosmos as a planet capable of supporting life, and wouldn’t it be amazing to see such a planet in our nearest neighboring star system? This is the fundamental reason we search.”

As noted, virtually all exoplanet discoveries that have been made in the past few decades were done using indirect methods – the most popular of which is Transit Photometery. This method is what the Kepler and K2 missions relied on to detect a total of 5,017 exoplanet candidates and confirm the existence of 2,470 exoplanets (30 of which were found to orbit within their star’s habitable zone).

This method consists of astronomers monitoring distant stars for periodic dips in brightness, which are caused by a planet transiting in front of the star.  By measuring these dips, scientists are able to determine the size of planets in that system. Another popular technique is the Radial Velocity (or Doppler) Method, which measures changes in a star’s position relative to the observer to determine how massive its system of planets are.

Project Blue’s mission concept, showing the telescope, its launch and deployment. Credit: projectblue.org

These and other methods (alone or in combination) have allowed for the many discoveries that have been made to take place. But so far, no exoplanets have been directly imaged, which is due to the cancelling effect stars have on optical instruments. Basically, astronomers have been unable to spot the light being reflected off of an exoplanet’s atmosphere because the light coming from the star is up to ten billion times brighter.

The challenge has thus become how to go about blocking this light so that the planets themselves can become visible. One proposed solution to this problem is NASA’s Starshade concept, a giant space structure that would be deployed into orbit alongside a space telescope (most likely, the James Webb Space Telescope). Once in orbit, this structure would deploy its flower-shaped foils to block the glare of distant stars, thus allowing the JWST and other instruments to image exoplanets directly.

But since Alpha Centauri is a binary system (or trinary, if you count Proxima Centauri), being able to directly image any planets around them is even more complicated. To address this, Project Blue has developed plans for a telescope that will be able to suppress light from both Alpha Centauri A and B, while simultaneously taking images of any planets that orbit them. It’s specialized starlight suppression system consists of three components.

First, there is the coronagraph, an instrument which will rely on multiple techniques to block starlight. Second, there’s the deformable mirror, low-order wavefront sensors, and software control algorithms that will manipulate incoming light. Last, there is the post-processing method known as Orbital Differntial Imaging (ODI), which will allow the Project Blue scientist to enhance the contrast of the images taken.

Project Blue’s mission timeline, which woudl commence at the end of the decade and run for six years. Credit: projectblue.org

Given its proximity to Earth, the Alpha Centauri system is the natural choice for conducting such a project. Back in 2012, an exoplanet candidate – Alpha Centauri Bb – was announced. However, in 2015, further analysis indicated that the signal detected was an artefact in the data. In March of 2015, a second possible exoplanet (Alpha Centauri Bc) was announced, but its existence has also come to be questioned.

With an instrument capable of directly imaging this system, the existence of any exoplanets could finally be confirmed (or ruled out). As Franck Marchis – the Senior Planetary Astronomer at the SETI Institute and Project Blue Science Operation Lead – said of the Project:

“Project Blue is an ambitious space mission, designed to answer to a fundamental question, but surprisingly the technology to collect an image of a “Pale Blue Dot” around Alpha Centauri stars is there. The technology that we will use to reach to detect a planet 1 to 10 billion times fainter than its star has been tested extensively in lab, and we are now ready to design a space-telescope with this instrument.”

If Project Blue meets its crowdfunding goals, the organization intends to deploy the telescope into Near-Earth Orbit (NEO) by 2021. The telescope will then spend the next two years observing the Alpha Centauri system with its corongraphic camera. All told, between the development of the instrument and the end of its observation campaign, the mission will last six years, a relatively short run for an astronomical mission.

Project Starshot, an initiative sponsored by the Breakthrough Foundation, is intended to be humanity’s first interstellar voyage. Credit: breakthroughinitiatives.org

However, the potential payoff for this mission would be incredibly profound. By directly imaging another planet in the closest star system to our own, Project Blue could gather vital data that would indicate if any planets there are habitable. For years, astronomers have attempted to learn more about the potential habitability of exoplanets by examining the spectral data produced by light passing through their atmospheres.

However, this process has been limited to massive gas giants that orbit close to their parent stars (i.e. “Super-Jupiters”). While various models have been proposed to place constraints on the atmospheres of rocky planets that orbit within a star’s habitable zone, none have been studied directly. Therefore, if it should prove to be successful, Project Blue would allow for some of the greatest scientific finds in history.

What’s more, it would provide information that could a long way towards informing a future mission to Alpha Centauri, such as Breakthrough Starshot. This proposed mission calls for the use of a large laser array to propel a lightsail-driven nanocraft up to relativistic speeds (20% the speed of light). At this rate, the craft would reach Alpha Centauri within 20 years time and be able to transmit data back using a series of tiny cameras, sensors and antennae.

As the name would suggest, Project Blue hopes to capture the first images of a “Pale Blue Dot” that orbits another star. This is a reference to the photograph of Earth that was taken by the Voyager 1 probe on February 19th, 1990, after the probe concluded its primary mission and was getting ready to leave the Solar System. The photos were taken at the request of famed astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan.

The “Pale Blue Dot” photograph taken by the Voyager 1 probe. Credit: NASA/JPL

When looking at the photographs, Sagan famously said: “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.” Thereafter, the name “Pale Blue Dot” came to be synonymous with Earth and capture the sense of awe and wonder that the Voyage 1 photographs evoked.

More recently, other “Pale Blue Dot” photographs have been snapped by missions like the Cassini orbiter. While photographing Saturn and its system of rings in the summer of 2013, Cassini managed to capture images that showed Earth in the background. Given the distance, Earth once again appeared as a small point of light against the darkness of space.

Beyond relying on crowdfunding and the participation of multiple non-profit organizations, this low-cost mission also seeks to capitalize on a growing trend in space exploration, – which is open participation and collaborations between scientific institutions and citizen scientists. This is one of the primary purposes behind Project Blue, which is to engage the public and educate them about the importance of space exploration.

As Jon Morse, the CEO of the BoldlyGo Institute, explained:

“The future of space exploration holds boundless potential for answering profound questions about our existence and destiny. Space-based science is a cornerstone for investigating such questions. Project Blue seeks to engage a global community in a mission to search for habitable planets and life beyond Earth.”

As of the penning of this article, Project Blue has managed to raise $125,561 USD of their goal of $175,000. For those interesting in backing this project, Project Blue’s Indiegogo campaign will remain open for another 11 days. And be sure to check out their promotional video as well:

Further Reading: SETI, Project Blue, Indiegogo

Breakthrough Lofts the Smallest Satellites Ever, not Interstellar Yet, but a Step Forward

In 2015, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner established Breakthrough Initiatives, a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). In April of the following year, he and the organization be founded announced the creation of Breakthrough Starshot, a program to create a lightsail-driven “wafercraft” that would make the journey to the nearest star system – Alpha Centauri – within our lifetime.

This past June, the organization took a major step towards achieving this goal. After hitching a ride on some satellites being deployed to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), Breakthrough conducted a successful test flight of its first spacecraft. Known as “Sprites”, these are not only the smallest spacecraft ever launched, but prototypes for the eventual wafercraft Starshot hopes to send to Alpha Centauri.

The concept for a wafercraft is simple. By leveraging recent developments in computing and miniaturization, spacecraft that are the size of a credit card could be created. These would be capable of carrying all the necessary sensors, microprocessors and microthrusters, but would be so small and light that it would take much less energy to accelerate them to relativistic speeds – in the case of Starshot, up to 20% the speed of light.

Artist’s illustration of a light-sail powered by a laser beam (red) generated on Earth’s surface. Credit: M. Weiss/CfA

As Pete Worden – Breakthrough Starshot’s executive director and the former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center – said in an interview with Scientific American:

“This is a very early version of what we would send to interstellar distances. In addition, this is another clear demonstration that it is possible for countries to work together to do great things in space. These are European spacecraft with U.S. nanosatellite payloads launching on an Indian booster—you can’t get much more international than that.”

Professor Abraham Loeb also has some choice words to mark this historic occasion. In addition to being the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science, the Chair of the Astronomy Department and the Director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at Harvard University, Prof. Loeb is also the chairman of the Breakthrough Starshot Advisory Committee. As he told Universe Today via email:

“The launch of the Sprite satellites marks the first demonstration that miniaturized electronics on small chips can be launched without damage, survive the harsh environment of space and communicate successfully with earth. The Starshot Initiative aims to launch similar chips attached to a lightweight sail that it being pushed by a laser beam to a fifth of the speed of light, so that its camera, communication and navigation devices (whose total weight is of order a gram) will reach the nearest planet outside the solar System within our generation.”

A prototype Sprite nanosatellite, showing its solar panel, microprocessors, sensors and transmitters. Credit: Zac Manchester

The craft were deployed on June 23rd, piggybacking on two satellites belonging to the multinational technology corporation OHB System AG. Much like the StarChips that Starshot is proposing, the Sprites represent a major step in the evolution of miniature spacecraft that can do the job of larger robotic explorers. They measure just 3.5 by 3.5 cm (1.378 x 1.378 inches) and weight only four grams (0.14 ounces), but still manage to pack solar panels, computers, sensors and radios into their tiny frames.

The Sprite were originally conceived by Zac Manchester, a postdoctorate researcher and aerospace engineer at Cornell University. Back in 2011, he launched a Kickstarter campaign (called “KickSat“) to raise funds to develop the concept, which was his way of bringing down the associated costs of spaceflight. The campaign was a huge success, with Manchester raising a total of $74,586 of his original goal of $30,000.

Now a member of Breakthrough Starshot (where he is in charge of Wafer design and optimization), Manchester oversaw the construction of the Sprites from the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Cornell. As Professor Loeb explained:

“The Sprites project is led by Zac Manchester, a Harvard postdoc who started working on this during his PhD at Cornell. Sprites are chip-size satellites powered by sunlight, intended to be released in space to demonstrate a new technology of lightweight (gram-scale) spacecrafts that can communicated with Earth.”
Zac Manchester holding a prototype KickSat. Credit: Zac Manchester/kickstarer

The purpose of this mission was to test how well the Sprites’ electronics systems and radio communications performed in orbit. Upon deployment, the Sprites remained attached to these satellites (known as “Max Valier” and “Venta”) and began transmitting. Communications were then received from ground stations, which demonstrated that the Sprites’ novel radio communication architecture performed exactly as it was designed to.

With this test complete, Starshot now has confirmation that a waferocraft is capable of operating in space and communicating with ground-based controllers. In the coming months and years, the many scientists and engineers that are behind this program will no doubt seek to test other essential systems (such as the craft’s microthrusters and imagers) while also working on the various engineering concerns that an instellar mission would entail.

In the meantime, the Sprites are still transmitting and are in radio contact with ground stations located in California and New York (as well as radio enthusiasts around the world). For those looking to listen in on their communications, Prof. Loeb was kind enough to let us know what frequency they are transmitting on.

The radio frequency at which the Sprites that were just launched operate is 437.24 MHz, corresponding to a wavelength of roughly 69 cm,” he said. So if you’ve got a ham radio and feel like tuning in, this is where to set your dials!

And be sure to check out Zac Manchester’s Kickstarter video, which showcases the technology and inspiration for the KickSat:

Further: Breakthrough Initiatives

A Novel Concept For Braking Breakthrough Starshot

In April of 2016, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announced the creation of Breakthrough Starshot. As part of his non-profit scientific organization (known as Breakthrough Initiatives), the purpose of Starshot was to design a lightsail nanocraft that would be capable of reaching the nearest star system – Alpha Centauri (aka. Rigel Kentaurus) – within our lifetime.

Since its inception, the scientists and engineers behind the Starshot concept have sought to address the challenges that such a mission would face. Similarly, there have been many in the scientific community who have also made suggestions as to how such a concept could work. The latest comes from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, where two researchers came up with a novel way of slowing the craft down once it reaches its destination.

To recap, the Starshot concept involves a small, gram-scale nanocraft being towed by a lightsail. Using a ground-based laser array, this lightsail would be accelerated to a velocity of about 60,000 km/s (37,282 mps) – or 20% the speed of light. At this speed, the nanocraft would be able to reach the closest star system to our own – Alpha Centauri, located 4.37 light-years away – in just 20 years time.

Project Starshot, an initiative sponsored by the Breakthrough Foundation, is intended to be humanity’s first interstellar voyage. Credit: breakthroughinitiatives.org

Naturally, this presents a number of technical challenges – which include the possibility of a collision with interstellar dust, the proper shape of the lightsail, and the sheer energy requirements for powering the laser array. But equally important is the idea of how such a craft would slow down once it reached its destination. With no lasers at the other end to apply breaking energy, how would the craft slow down enough to begin studying the system?

It was this very question that René Heller and Michael Hippke chose to address in their study, “Deceleration of high-velocity interstellar photon sails into bound orbits at Alpha Centauri“. Heller is an astrophysicts who is currently assisting the ESA with its preparations for the upcoming PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO) mission – an exoplanet hunter being deployed as part of their Cosmic Vision program.

With the help IT specialist Michael Hippke, the two considered what would be needed for interstellar mission to reach Alpha Centauri, and provide good scientific returns upon its arrival. This would require that braking maneuvers be conducted once it arrived so the the spacecraft would not overshoot the system in the blink of an eye. As they state in their study:

“Although such an interstellar probe could reach Proxima 20 years after launch, without propellant to slow it down it would traverse the system within hours. Here we demonstrate how the stellar photon pressures of the stellar triple Alpha Cen A, B, and C (Proxima) can be used together with gravity assists to decelerate incoming solar sails from Earth.”

The projected path a lightsail mission to Alpha Centauri could take, which would allow it to detour to Proxima Centauri. Credit: PHL @ UPR Arecibo.

For the sake of their calculations, Heller and Hippke estimated that the craft would weigh less than 100 grams (3.5 ounces), and would be mounted on a sail measuring 100,000 m² (1,076,391 square foot) in surface area. Once these were complete, Hippke adapted them into a series of computer simulations. Based on their results, they proposed an entirely new mission concept that do away with the need for lasers entirely.

In essence, their revised concept called for an Autonomous Active Sail (AAS) craft that would provide for its own propulsion and stopping power. This craft would deploy its sail while in the Solar System and use the Sun’s solar wind to accelerate it to high speeds. Once it reached the Alpha Centauri System, it would redeploy its sail so that incoming radiation from Alpha Centauri A and B would have the effect of slowing it down.

An added bonus of this proposed maneuver is that the craft, once it had been decelerated to the point that it could effectively explore the Alpha Centauri system, could then use a gravity assist from these stars to reroute itself towards Proxima Centauri. Once there, it could conduct the first up-close exploration of Proxima b – the closest exoplanet to Earth – and determine what its atmospheric and surface conditions are like.

Since the existence of this planet was first announced by the European Southern Observatory back in August of 2016, there has been much speculation about whether or not it could be habitable. Having a mission that could examine it to check for the telltale markers – a viable atmosphere, a magnetosphere, and liquid water on the surface – would surely settle that debate.

As Heller explained in a press release from the Max Planck Institute, this concept presents quite a few advantages, but comes with its share of trade offs – not the least of which is the time it would take to get to Alpha Centauri. “Our new mission concept could yield a high scientific return, but only the grandchildren of our grandchildren would receive it,” he said. “Starshot, on the other hand, works on a timescale of decades and could be realized in one generation. So we might have identified a longterm, follow-up concept for Starshot.”

At present, Heller and Hippke are discussing their concept with Breakthrough Starshot to see if it would be viable. One individual who has looked over their work is Professor Avi Loeb, the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University, and the chairman of the Breakthrough Foundation’s Advisory Board. As he told Universe Today via email, the concept put forth by Heller and Hippke is worthy of consideration, but has its limitations:

“If it is possible to slow down a spacecraft by starlight (and gravitational assist), then it is also possible to launch it in the first place by the same forces… If so, why is the recently announced Breakthrough Starshot project using a laser and not Sunlight to propel our spacecraft? The answer is that our envisioned laser array can push the sail with an energy flux that is a million times larger than the local solar flux.

“In using starlight to reach relativistic speeds, one must use an extremely thin sail. In the new paper, Heller and Hippke consider the example of a milligram instead of a gram-scale sail. For a sail of area ten square meters (as envisioned in our Starshot concept study), the thickness of their sail must be only a few atoms. Such a surface is orders of magnitude thinner than the wavelength of light that it aims to reflect, and so its reflectivity would be low. It does not appear feasible to reduce the weight by so many orders of magnitude and yet maintain the rigidity and reflectivity of the sail material.

“The main constraint in defining the Starshot concept was to visit Alpha Centauri within our lifetime. Extending the travel time beyond the lifetime of a human, as advocated in this paper, would make it less appealing to the people involved. Also, one should keep in mind that the sail must be accompanied by electronics which will add significantly to its weight.”

In short, if time is not a factor, we can envision that our first attempts to reach another Solar System may indeed involve an AAS being propelled and slowed down by solar wind. But if we’re willing to wait centuries for such a mission to be completed, we might also consider sending rockets with conventional engines (possibly even crewed ones) to Alpha Centauri.

But if we are intent on getting there within our own lifetimes, then a laser-driven sail or something similar will have be the way to go. Humanity has spent over half a century exploring what’s in our own backyard, and some of us are impatient to see what’s next door!

Further Reading: Max Planck Institute, ArXiv

A “Breakthrough” to Search for Planets in Closest Star System to Earth

Ever since the European Southern Observatory (ESO) announced that they had discovered an exoplanet in the nearby system of Proxima Centauri, there have been a lot of questions about this exoplanet. In addition to whether or not this planet could actually support life, astronomers have also been eager to see if its companion stars – Alpha Centauri A and B – have exoplanets too.

Prior to the discovery of Proxima b, Alpha Centauri was thought to host the closest exoplanets to Earth (Alpha Bb and Bc). However, time has cast doubt on the existence of the first, while the second’s existence remains unconfirmed. But thanks to a recent agreement between the ESO and Breakthrough Initiatives, we may yet find out if there are exoplanets in Alpha Centauri – which will come in handy when it comes time to explore there!

In accordance with this agreement, Breakthrough Initiatives will provide additional funds so that the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), located at the La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, can be modified to conduct a special search program of Alpha Centauri. This will involve upgrading the VLT Imager and Spectrometer for mid-Infrared (VISIR) instrument with new equipment that will enhance its planet-hunting abilities.

Image of the Alpha Centauri AB system and its distant and faint companion, Proxima Centauri. Credit: ESO

This includes a new instrument module that will allow the VLT to use a technique known as coronagraphy – a form of adaptive optics that corrects for a star’s brightness, thus making it easier for a telescope to spot the thermal glow of orbiting planets around them. While the Breakthrough Prize Foundation will pay a large fraction of the upgrade costs, the ESO will be making the VLT and its staff available to conduct the survey – which is scheduled for 2019.

Such an agreement is truly a win-win scenario. For the ESO, this will not only improve the VLT’s imaging abilities, but will also assist with the development of the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT). This proposed array, which is scheduled for completion by 2024, will rely on the Mid-infrared E-ELT Imager and Spectrograph (METIS) instrument to hunt for potentially habitable exoplanets.

Any lessons learned from the upgrade of VISIR will allow them to develop the necessary expertise to run METIS, and will also allow them to test the effectiveness of the technology beforehand. For Breakthrough Initiatives, determining if there are any planets in the Alpha Centauri system will go a long way towards helping them mount their historic mission to this star.

In the coming years, Breakthrough Initiatives hopes to mount the first interstellar voyage in history using a lightsail and nanocraft that would rely on lasers to push it up to relativistic speeds (20% the speed of light). Known as Breakthrough Starshot, this craft could be ready to launch in a few years time, and would reach Alpha Centauri in just 20 years time.

The ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile and a stellar backdrop showing the location of Alpha Centauri. Credit: ESO

Once there, the nanocraft (using a series of microsensors) would relay information back to Earth about the Alpha Centauri system – which would include any information on its system of planets, and whether or not they are habitable. Hence, determining if there’s anything there to study in the first place will help lay the groundwork for the mission.

As Professor Avi Loeb – the Frank B. Baird, Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard and a member of the Breakthrough Starshot Advisory Committee – told Universe Today via email:

“We hope that the partnership between the Breakthrough Prize Foundation and ESO will lead to the discovery of new habitable planets around the nearest stars. Once discovered, we could search for the molecular signatures of life in the atmosphere of these planets, and potentially even send a spacecraft that will reach them within our lifetime. The latter is the driver for the Starshot Initiative. The discovery of habitable nearby planets will provide us with targets for photography by gram-scale spacecrafts, launched at a fraction of the speed of light and  equipped with cameras. For example, we would like to find out whether such planets are covered by blue oceans, green vegetation or yellow deserts.”

It’s one of the hallmarks of the new space age: a private and public organization coming together for the sake of mutual benefit. But when those benefits include advancing scientific research, space exploration, and the hunt for habitable planets other than our own, it truly is a win-win situation!

In the meantime, enjoy this video provided by ESO about their new partnership with Breakthrough Initiatives:

Further Reading: ESO, Breakthrough Initiatives

What Are Multiple Star Systems?

What Are Multiple Star Systems?


When we do finally learn the full truth about our place in the galaxy, and we’re invited to join the Galactic Federation of Planets, I’m sure we’ll always be seen as a quaint backwater world orbiting a boring single star.

The terrifying tentacle monsters from the nightmare tentacle world will gurgle horrifying, but clearly condescending comments about how we’ve only got a single star in the Solar System.

The beings of pure energy will remark how only truly enlightened civilizations can come from systems with at least 6 stars, insulting not only humanity, but also the horrifying tentacle monsters, leading to another galaxy spanning conflict.

Yes, we’ll always be making up for our stellar deficit in the eyes of aliens, or whatever those creepy blobs use for eyes.

What we lack in sophistication, however, we make up in volume. In our Milky Way, fully 2/3rds of star systems only have a single star. The last 1/3rd is made up of multiple star systems.

The Milky Way as seen from Devil's Tower, Wyoming. Image Credit: Wally Pacholka
The Milky Way as seen from Devil’s Tower, Wyoming. Image Credit: Wally Pacholka

We’re taking binary stars, triple star systems, even exotic 7 star systems. When you mix and match different types of stars in various Odd Couple stellar apartments, the results get interesting.

Consider our own Solar System, where the Sun and planets formed together out a cloud of gas and dust. Gravity collected material into the center of the Solar System, becoming the Sun, while the rest of the disk spun up faster and faster. Eventually our star ignited its fusion furnace, blasting out the rest of the stellar nebula.

But different stellar nebulae can lead to the formation of multiple stars instead. What you get depends on the mass of the cloud, and how fast it’s rotating.

Check out this amazing photograph of a multiple star system forming right now.

ALMA image of the L1448 IRS3B system, with two young stars at the center and a third distant from them. Spiral structure in the dusty disk surrounding them indicates instability in the disk, astronomers said. Credit: Bill Saxton, ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), NRAO/AUI/NSF
ALMA image of the L1448 IRS3B system, with two young stars at the center and a third distant from them. Spiral structure in the dusty disk surrounding them indicates instability in the disk, astronomers said. Credit: Bill Saxton, ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), NRAO/AUI/NSF

In this image, you can see three stars forming together, two at the center, about 60 astronomical units away from each other (60 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun), and then a third orbiting 183 AU away.

It’s estimated these stars are only 10,000 to 20,000 years old. This is one of the most amazing astronomy pictures I ever seen.

When you have two stars, that’s a binary system. If the stars are similar in mass to each other, then they orbit a common point of mass, known as the barycenter. If the stars are different masses, then it can appear that one star is orbiting the other, like a planet going around a star.

When you look up in the sky, many of the single stars you see are actually binary stars, and can be resolved with a pair of binoculars or a small telescope. For example, in a good telescope, Alpha Centauri can be resolved into two equally bright stars, with the much dimmer Proxima Centauri hanging out nearby.

The two bright stars are (left) Alpha Centauri and (right) Beta Centauri. The faint red star in the center of the red circle is Proxima Centauri. Credit: Skatebiker at English Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The two bright stars are (left) Alpha Centauri and (right) Beta Centauri. The faint red star in the center of the red circle is Proxima Centauri. Credit: Skatebiker at English Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

You have to be careful, though, sometimes stars just happen to be beside each other in the sky, but they’re not actually orbiting one another – this is known as an optical binary. It’s a trap.

Astronomers find that you can then get binary stars with a third companion orbiting around them. As long as the third star is far enough away, the whole system can be stable. This is a triple star system.

You can get two sets of binary stars orbiting each other, for a quadruple star system.

In fact, you can build up these combinations of stars up. For example, the star system Nu Scorpii has 7 stars in a single system. All happily orbiting one another for eons.

If stars remained unchanging forever, then this would be the end of our story. However, as we’ve discussed in other articles, stars change over time, bloating up as red giants, detonating as supernovae and turning into bizarre objects, like white dwarfs, neutron stars and even black holes. And when these occur in multiple star systems, well, watch the sparks fly.

There are a nearly infinite combinations you can have here: main sequence, red giant, white dwarf, neutron star, and even black holes. I don’t have time to go through all the combinations, but here are some highlights.

This artist’s impression shows VFTS 352 — the hottest and most massive double star system to date where the two components are in contact and sharing material. The two stars in this extreme system lie about 160 000 light-years from Earth in the Large Magellanic Cloud. This intriguing system could be heading for a dramatic end, either with the formation of a single giant star or as a future binary black hole. ESO/L. Calçada
VFTS 352 is the hottest and most massive double star system to date where the two components are in contact and sharing material. ESO/L. Calçada

For starters, binary stars can get so close they actually touch each other. This is known as a contact binary, where the two stars actually share material back and forth. But it gets even stranger.

When a main sequence star like our Sun runs out of hydrogen fuel in its core, it expands as a red giant, before cooling and becoming a white dwarf.

When a red giant is in a binary system, the distance and evolution of its stellar companion makes all the difference.

If the two stars are close enough, the red giant can pass material over to the other star. And if the red giant is large enough, it can actually engulf its companion. Imagine our Sun, orbiting within the atmosphere of a red giant star. Needless to say, that’s not healthy for any planets.

An even stranger contact binary happens when a red giant consumes a binary neutron star. This is known as a Thorne-Zytkow object. The neutron star spirals inward through the atmosphere of the red giant. When it reaches the core, it either becomes a black hole, gobbling up the red giant from within, or an even more massive neutron star. This is exceedingly rare, and only one candidate object has ever been observed.

A Type Ia supernova occurs when a white dwarf accretes material from a companion star until it exceeds the Chandrasekhar limit and explodes. By studying these exploding stars, astronomers can measure dark energy and the expansion of the universe. CfA scientists have found a way to correct for small variations in the appearance of these supernovae, so that they become even better standard candles. The key is to sort the supernovae based on their color. Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss
A white dwarf accreting material from a companion star. Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

When a binary pair is a white dwarf, the dead remnant of a star like our Sun, then material can transfer to the surface of the white dwarf, causing novae explosions. And if enough material is transferred, the white dwarf explodes as a Type 1A supernova.

If you’re a star that was unlucky enough to be born beside a very massive star, you can actually kicked off into space when it explodes as a supernova. In fact, there are rogue stars which such a kick, they’re on an escape trajectory from the entire galaxy, never to return.

If you have two neutron stars in a binary pair, they release energy in the form of gravitational waves, which causes them to lose momentum and spiral inward. Eventually they collide, becoming a black hole, and detonating with so much energy we can see the explosions billions of light-years away – a short-period gamma ray burst.

The combinations are endless.

How Earth could look with two suns. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Ariz.
How Earth could look with two suns. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Ariz.

It’s amazing to think what the night sky would look like if we were born into a multiple star system. Sometimes there would be several stars in the sky, other times just one. And rarely, there would be an actual night.

How would life be different in a multiple star system? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

In our next episode, we try to untangle this bizarre paradox. If the Universe is infinite, how did it start out as a singularity? That doesn’t make any sense.

We glossed over it in this episode, but one of the most interesting effects of multiple star systems are novae, explosions of stolen material on the surface of a white dwarf star. Learn more about it in this video.

What’s the Most Stable Shape for an Interstellar Lightsail?

In 2015, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner founded Breakthrough Initiatives with the intention of bolstering the search for extra-terrestrial life. Since that time, the non-profit organization – which is backed by Stephen Hawking and Mark Zuckerberg – has announced a number of advanced projects. The most ambitious of these is arguably Project Starshot, an interstellar mission that would make the journey to the nearest star in just 20 years.

This concept involves an ultra-light nanocraft that would rely on a laser-driven sail to achieve speeds of up to 20% the speed of light. Naturally, for such a mission to be successful, a number of engineering challenges have to be tackled first. And according to a recent study by a team of international researchers, two of the most important issues are the shape of the sail itself, and the type of laser involved.

The researchers include Elena Popova of the Skobeltsyn Institute of Nuclear Physics in Moscow; Messoud Efendiev of the Institute of Computational Biology (ICB) at the German Research Center for Environmental Health (GmbH); and Ildar Gabitov of the Skoltech Center for Photonics and Quantum Materials in Moscow. Combining their expertise, they conducted a study that examined various stability models for this proposed mission.

As they indicate in their study, titled “On the Stability of a Space Vehicle Riding on an Intense Laser Beam“, the team ran stability simulations 0n the concept, taking into account the nature of the wafer-sized craft (aka. StarChip), the sail (aka. Lightsail) and the nature of the laser itself. For the sake of these simulations, they also factored in a number of assumptions about Starshot’s design.

These included the notion that the StarChip would be a rigid body (i.e. made up of solid material), that the circular sail would either be flat, spherical or conical (i.e. concave in shape), and that the surface of the sail would reflect the laser light. Beyond this, they played with multiple variations on the design, and came up with some rather telling results.

As Dr. Elena Popova, the lead author on the paper, told Universe Today via email:

“We considered different shapes of sail: a) spherical (coincides with parabolic for small sizes) as most appropriate for final configuration of nanocraft en route; b) conical; c) flat (simplest) (will be seen to be unstable so that even spinning of craft does not help).”

What they found was that the simplest, stable configuration would involve a sail that was spherical in shape. It would also require that the StarChip be tethered at a sufficient distance from the sail, one which would be longer than the curvature radius of the sail itself.

A phased laser array, perhaps in the high desert of Chile, propels sails on their journey. Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives.
A phased laser array, perhaps in the high desert of Chile, propels sails on their journey. Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives

“For the sail with almost flat cone shape we obtained similar stability condition,” said Popova. “The nanocraft with flat sail is unstable in every case. It simply corresponds to the case of infinite radius of curvature of the sale. Hence, there is no way to extend center of mass beyond it.”

As for the laser, they considered several how the two main types would effect stability. This included uniform lasers that have a sharp boundary and “Gaussian” beams, which are characterized by high-intensity in the middle that declines rapidly towards the edges. As Dr. Popova stated, they determined that in order to ensure stability – and that the craft wouldn’t be lost to space – a uniform laser was the way to go.

“The nanocraft driven by intense laser beam pressure acting on its Lightsail is sensitive to the torques and lateral forces reacting on the surface of the sail. These forces influence the orientation and lateral displacement of the spacecraft, thus affecting its dynamics. If unstable the nanocraft might even be expelled from the area of laser beam. The most dangerous perturbations in the position of nanocraft inside the beam and its orientation relative to the beam axis are those with direct coupling between rotation and displacement (“spin-orbit coupling”).”

In the end, these were very similar to the conclusions reached by Professor Abraham Loeb and his colleagues at Starshot. In addition to being the Frank B. Baird, Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University, Prof. Loeb is also the chairman of the Breakthrough Foundation’s Advisory Board. In a study titled Stability of a Light Sail Riding on a Laser Beam” (published on Sept, 29th, 2016), they too examined what was necessary to ensure a stable mission.

This included the benefits of a conical vs. a spherical sail, and a uniform vs. a Gaussian beam. As Prof. Loeb told Universe Today via email:

“We found that a parachute-shaped sail riding on a Gaussian laser beam is unstable… We show in our paper that a sail shaped as a spherical shell (like a large ping-pong ball) can ride in a stable fashion on a laser beam that is shaped like a cylinder (or 3-4 lasers that establish a nearly circular illumination).”

As for the recommendations about the StarChip being at a sufficient distance from the LightSail, Prof. Loeb and his colleagues are of a different mind. “They argue that in case you attach a weight to the sail that is sufficiently well separated from the parachute, you might make it stable.” he said. “Even if this is true, it is unclear that their proposal is useful because such a configuration is rather complicated to build and launch.”

These are just a few of the engineering challenges facing an interstellar mission. Back in September, another study was released that assessed the risk of collisions and how it might effect the Starshot mission. In this case, the researchers suggested that the sail have a layer of shielding to absorb impacts, and that the laser array be used to clear debris in the LightSail’s path.

These conclusions echoed a similar study produced by Professor Phillip Lubin and his colleagues. A professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), Lubin is also one of the chief architects of Project Starshot and the mind behind the NASA-funded Directed Energy Propulsion for Interstellar Exploraiton (DEEP-IN) project and the Directed Energy Interstellar Study.

When Milner and the science team behind Starshot first announced their intention to create an interstellar spacecraft (in April 2016), they were met with a great deal of enthusiasm and skepticism. Understandably, many believed that such a mission was too ambitious, due to the challenges involved. But with every challenge that has been addressed, both by the Starshot team and outside researchers, the mission architecture has evolved.

At this rate, barring any serious complications, we may be seeing an interstellar mission taking place within a decade or so. And, barring any hiccups in the mission, we could be exploring Alpha Centauri or Proxima b up close within our lifetime!

Further Reading: arXiv