What Would be the Benefits of an Interstellar Probe?

On July 14th, 2015, the New Horizons mission made history when it became the first robotic spacecraft to conduct a flyby of Pluto. On December 31st, 2018, it made history again by being the first spacecraft to rendezvous with a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) – Ultima Thule (2014 MU69). In addition, the Voyager 2 probe recently joined its sister probe (Voyager 1) in interstellar space.

Given these accomplishments, it is understandable that proposals for interstellar missions are once again being considered. But what would such a mission entail, and is it even worth it? Kelvin F. Long, the co-founder of the Initiative for Interstellar Studies (i4iS) and a major proponent of interstellar flight, recently published a paper that supports the idea of sending robotic missions to nearby star systems to conduct in-situ reconnaissance.

Continue reading “What Would be the Benefits of an Interstellar Probe?”

Exactly How We Would Send our First Laser-Powered Probe to Alpha Centauri

The dream of traveling to another star system, and maybe even finding populated worlds there, is one that has preoccupied humanity for many generations. But it was not until the era of space exploration that scientists have been able to investigate various methods for making an interstellar journey. While many theoretical designs have been proposed over the years, a lot of attention lately has been focused on laser-propelled interstellar probes.

The first conceptual design study, known as Project Dragonfly was hosted by the Initiative for Interstellar Studies (i4iS) in 2013. The concept called for the use of lasers to accelerate a light sail and spacecraft to 5% the speed of light, thus reaching Alpha Centauri in about a century. In a recent paper, one of the teams that took part in the design competition assessed the feasibility of their proposal for a lightsail and magnetic sail.

Continue reading “Exactly How We Would Send our First Laser-Powered Probe to Alpha Centauri”

There Could be Hundreds of Interstellar Asteroids and Comets in the Solar System Right Now That we Could Study

On October 19th, 2017, the first interstellar object – named 1I/2017 U1 (aka. ‘Oumuamua) – to be observed in our Solar System was detected. In the months that followed, multiple follow-up observations were conducted to gather more data on its composition, shape, and possible origins. Rather than dispel the mystery surrounding the true nature of ‘Oumuamua – is a comet or an asteroid? – these efforts have only managed to deepen it.

In a recent study, Harvard Professor Abraham Loeb and Shmuel Bialy – a postdoctoral researcher from the Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) – addressed this mystery by suggesting that ‘Oumuamua may be an extra-terrestrial solar sail. Building on this, Loeb and Amir Siraj (a Harvard undergraduate student) conducted a new study that indicated that hundreds of “‘Oumuamua-like” objects could be detectable in our Solar System.

Continue reading “There Could be Hundreds of Interstellar Asteroids and Comets in the Solar System Right Now That we Could Study”

Could Oumuamua Be an Extra-Terrestrial Solar Sail?

On October 19th, 2017, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System-1 (Pan-STARRS-1) in Hawaii announced the first-ever detection of an interstellar asteroid, named 1I/2017 U1 (aka. ‘Oumuamua). In the months that followed, multiple follow-up observations were conducted that allowed astronomers to get a better idea of its size and shape, while also revealing that it had the characteristics of both a comet and an asteroid.

Interestingly enough, there has also been some speculation that based on its shape, ‘Oumuamua might actually be an interstellar spacecraft (Breakthrough Listen even monitored it for signs of radio signals!). A new study by a pair of astronomers from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) has taken it a step further, suggesting that ‘Oumuamua may actually be a light sail of extra-terrestrial origin.

Continue reading “Could Oumuamua Be an Extra-Terrestrial Solar Sail?”

Optical Rocket Boosts Electrons to Nearly the Speed of Light

A team of researchers from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln recently conducted an experiment where they were able to accelerate plasma electrons to close to the speed of light. This “optical rocket”, which pushed electrons at a force a trillion-trillion times greater than that generated by a conventional rocket, could have serious implications for everything from space travel to computing and nanotechnology.

Continue reading “Optical Rocket Boosts Electrons to Nearly the Speed of Light”

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

Breakthrough Starshot is Now Looking for the Companies to Build its Laser-Powered Solar Sails to Other Stars

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 – Proxima Centauri – within our lifetime.

In the latest development, on Wednesday May 23rd, Breakthrough Starshot held an “industry day” to outline their plans for developing the Starshot laser sail. During this event, the Starshot committee submitted a Request For Proposals (RFP) to potential bidders, outlining their specifications for the sail that will carry the wafercraft as it makes the journey to Proxima Centauri within our lifetimes.

As we have noted in several previous articles, Breakthrough Starshot calls for the creation of a gram-scale nanocraft being towed by a laser sail. This sail will be accelerated by an Earth-based laser array to a velocity of about 60,000 km/s (37,282 mps) – or 20% the speed of light (o.2 c). This concept builds upon the idea of a solar sail, a spacecraft that relies on solar wind to push itself through space.

An artist’s illustration of a light-sail powered by a radio beam (red) generated on the surface of a planet. Credit: M. Weiss/CfA

At this speed, the nanocraft would be able to reach the closest star system to our own – Proxima Centauri, located 4.246 light-years away – in just 20 years time. Since its inception, the team behind Breakthrough Starshot has invested considerable time and energy addressing the conceptual and engineering challenges such a mission would entail. And with this latest briefing, they are now looking to move the project from concept to reality.

In addition to being the Frank B. Baird, Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University, Abraham Loeb is also the Chair of the Breakthrough Starshot Advisory Committee. As he explained to Universe Today via email:

“Starshot is an initiative to send a probe to the nearest star system at a fifth of the speed of light so that it will get there within a human lifetime of a couple of decades. The goal is to obtain photos of exo-planets like Proxima b, which is in the habitable zone of the nearest star Proxima Centauri, four light years away. The technology adopted for fulfilling this challenge uses a powerful (100 Giga-watt) laser beam pushing on a lightweight (1 gram) sail to which a lightweight electronics chip is attached (with a camera, navigation and communication devices). The related technology development is currently funded at $100M by Yuri Milner through the Breakthrough Foundation.”

In addition to outlining BI’s many efforts to find ETI – which include Breakthrough Listen, Breakthrough Message and Breakthrough Watch – the RFP focused on Starshot’s Objectives. As was stated in the RFP:

“The scope of this RFP addresses the Technology Development phase – to explore LightSail concepts, materials, fabrication and measurement methods, with accompanying analysis and simulation that creates advances toward a viable path to a scalable and ultimately deployable LightSail.”

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

As Loeb indicated, this RFP comes not long after another “industry day” that was related to the development of the technology of the laser – termed the “Photon Engine”. In contrast, this particular RFP was dedicated to the design of the laser sail itself, which will carry the nanocraft to Proxima Centauri.

“The Industry Day was intended to inform potential partners about the project and request for proposals (RFP) associated with research on the sail materials and design,” added Loeb. “Within the next few years we hope to demonstrate the feasibility of the required sail and laser technologies. The project will allocate funds to experimental teams who will conduct the related research and development work. ”

The RFP also addressed Starshot’s long-term goals and its schedule for research and development in the coming years. These include the investment in $100 million over the next five years to determine the feasibility of the laser and sail, to invest the value of the European Extremely Large Telescope (EELT) from year 6 to year 11 and build a low-power prototype for space testing, and invest the value of the Large Hardon Collider (LHC) over a 20 year period to develop the final spacecraft.

“The European Extremely Large Telescope (EELT) will cost on order of a billion [dollars] and the Large Hadron Collider cost was ten times higher,’ said Loeb. “These projects were mentioned to calibrate the scale of the cost for the future phases in the Starshot project, where the second phase will involve producing a demo system and the final step will involve the complete launch system.”

Artist’s impression of Proxima b, which was discovered using the Radial Velocity method. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

The research and development schedule for the sail was also outlined, with three major phases identified over the next 5 years. Phase 1 (which was the subject of the RFP) would entail the development of concepts, models and subscale testing. Phase 2 would involve hardware validation in a laboratory setting, while Phase 3 would consist of field demonstrations.

With this latest “industry day” complete, Starshot is now open for submissions from industry partners looking to help them realize their vision. Step A proposals, which are to consist of a five-page summary, are due on June 22nd and will be assessed by Harry Atwater (the Chair of the Sail Subcommittee) as well as Kevin Parkin (head of Parkin Research), Jim Benford (muWave Sciences) and Pete Klupar (the Project Manager).

Step B proposals, which are to consist of a more detailed, fifteen-page summary, will be due on July 10th. From these, the finalists will be selected by Pete Worden, the Executive Director of Breakthrough Starshot. If all goes according to plan, the initiative hopes to launch the first lasersail-driven nanocraft in to Proxima Centauri in 30 years and see it arrive there in 50 years.

So if you’re an aerospace engineer, or someone who happens to run a private aerospace firm, be sure to get your proposals ready! To learn more about Starshot, the engineering challenges they are addressing, and their research, follow the links provided to the BI page. To see the slides and charts from the RFP, check out Starshot’s Solicitations page.

Further Reading: Centauri Dreams, Breakthrough Starshot

Pros and Cons of Various Methods of Interstellar Travel

It’s a staple of science fiction, and something many people have fantasized about at one time or another: the idea of sending out spaceships with colonists and transplanting the seed of humanity among the stars. Between discovering new worlds, becoming an interstellar species, and maybe even finding extra-terrestrial civilizations, the dream of  spreading beyond the Solar System is one that can’t become reality soon enough!

For decades, scientists have contemplated how humanity might one-day reach achieve this lofty goal. And the range of concepts they have come up with present a whole lot of pros and cons. These pros and cons were raised in a recent study by Martin Braddock, a member of the Mansfield and Sutton Astronomical Society, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology, and a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. Continue reading “Pros and Cons of Various Methods of Interstellar Travel”

The Genesis Project: Using Robotic Gene Factories to Seed the Galaxy with Life

In the past decade, the rate at which extra-solar planets have been discovered and characterized has increased prodigiously. Because of this, the question of when we might explore these distant planets directly has repeatedly come up. In addition, the age-old question of what we might find once we get there – i.e. is humanity alone in the Universe or not? – has also come up with renewed vigor.

These questions have led to a number of interesting and ambitious proposals. These include Project Blue, a space telescope which would directly observe any planets orbiting Alpha Centauri, and Breakthrough Starshot – which aims to send a laser-driven nanocraft to Alpha Centauri in just 20 years. But perhaps the most daring proposal comes in the form of Project Genesis, which would attempt to seed distant planets with life.

This proposal was put forth by Dr. Claudius Gros, a theoretical physicist from the Institute for Theoretical Physics at Goethe University Frankfurt. In 2016, he published a paper that described how robotic missions equipped with gene factories (or cryogenic pods) could be used to distribute microbial life to “transiently habitable exoplanets – i.e. planets capable of supporting life, but not likely to give rise to it on their own.

The purpose of Project Genesis would be to seed “transiently habitable” worlds with life, thus giving them a jump start on evolution. Credit: NASA/Jenny Mottor

Not long ago, Universe Today wrote about Dr. Gros’ recent study where he proposed using a magnetic sail to slow down an interstellar spacecraft. We were fortunate to catch up with Dr. Gros again and had a chance to ask him about Project Genesis. You can find our Q&A below, and be sure to check out his seminal paper that describes this project – “Developing Ecospheres on Transiently Habitable Planets: The Genesis Project“.

What is the purpose of Project Genesis?

Exoplanets come in all sizes, temperatures and compositions. The purpose of the Genesis project is to offer terrestrial life alternative evolutionary pathways on those exoplanets that are potentially habitable but yet lifeless. The basic philosophy of most scientists nowadays is that simple life is common in the universe and complex life is rare. We don’t know that for sure, but at the moment, that is the consensus.

If you had good conditions, simple life can develop very fast, but complex life will have a hard time. At least on Earth, it took a very long time for complex life to arrive. The Cambrian Explosion only happened about 500 million years ago, roughly 4 billion years after Earth was formed. If we give planets the opportunity to fast forward evolution, we can give them the chance to have their own Cambrian Explosions.

Early trilobite species (Eoredlichia takooensis) from the Lower Cambrian period, found in Emu Bay Shale, Kangaroo Island, Australia. Credit and ©: Royal Ontario Museum/David Rudkin

What worlds would be targeted?

The prime candidates are habitable “oxygen planets” around M-dwarfs like TRAPPIST-1. It is very likely that the oxygen-rich primordial atmosphere of these planets will have prevented abiogenesis in first place, that is the formation of life. Our galaxy could potentially harbor billions of habitable but lifeless oxygen planets.

Nowadays, astronomers are looking for planets around M-stars. These are very different from planets around Sun-like stars. Once a star forms, it takes a certain amount of time to contract to the point where fusion begins, and it starts to produce energy. For the Sun, this took 10 million years, which is very fast. For stars like TRAPPIST-1, it would take 100 million to 1 billion years. Then they have to contract to dissipate their initial heat.

The planets around TRAPPIST-1 would have been very hot, because the star was very hot for a long time. All the water that was in their stratospheres, the UV radiation would have disassociated it into hydrogen and oxygen – the hydrogen escaped, and the oxygen remained. All surveys have showed that they have oxygen atmospheres, but this is the product of chemical disassociation and not from plants (as with Earth).

There’s a good chance that oxygen planets are sterile, because oxygen planets eat up prebiotic conditions. We believe there may be billions of oxygen planets in our galaxy. They would have no life, and complex life needs oxygen. In science fiction, you have all these planets that look alike. We could imagine that in half a billion years, we could have this because we seeded oxygen planets (only we couldn’t travel there quickly since we have no FTL).

Illustration of what the TRAPPIST-1 system might look like from a vantage point near planet TRAPPIST-1f (at right). Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

What kind of organisms would be sent?

The first wave would consist of unicellular autotrophs. That is photo-synthesizing bacteria, like cyanobacteria, and eukaryotes (the cell type making up all complex life, that is animals and plants). Heterotrophs would follow in a second stage, organisms that feed on other organisms and can only exist after autotrophs exist and take root.

How would these organisms be sent?

That depends on the technology. If it can advance, we can miniaturize a gene factory. In principle, nature is a miniature gene factory. Everything we want to produce is very small. If it’s possible that would be the best option. Send in a gene bank, and then select the most optimal organism to send down. If that is not possible, you would have to have frozen germs. In the end, it depends on what would be the technically available.

You could also send in synthetic life. Synthetic biology is a very active research field, which involves reprogramming the genetic code. In science fiction, you have alien life with a different genetic code. Today, people are trying to produce this here on Earth. The end goal is to have new life forms that are based on a different code. This would be very dangerous on Earth, but on a far-distant planet, it would be beneficial.

What if these worlds are not sterile?

Genesis is all about life, not destroying life, so we’d want to avoid that. The probes would have to go into orbit, so we are pretty sure that from orbit, we could detect complex life on the surface. The Genesis Project was intended for planets that are not habitable for eternity. Earth is habitable for billions of years, but we are not sure about habitable exoplanets.

This illustration shows a star’s light illuminating the atmosphere of a planet. Credits: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Exoplanets come in all kinds of sized, temperatures, and habitabilities. Many of these planets will only be habitable for some time, maybe 1 billion years. Life there will not have time to evolve into complex life forms. So you have a decision: leave them like they are, or take a chance at developing complex life there.

Some believe that all bacteria are worth saving. On Earth, there is no protection for bacteria. But bacteria living on different planets are treated differently. Planetary protection, why do we do that? So we can study the life, or for the sake of protecting life itself? Mars most likely had life at one time, but now not, except for maybe a few bacteria. Still, we plan manned missions to Mars, which means planetary protection is off. It’s a contradiction.

I am very enthusiastic about finding life, but what about the planets where we don’t find life? This offers the possibility about doing something about it.

Could humanity benefit from this someday (i.e. colonize “seeded” planets)?

Yes and no. Yes, because nothing would keep our decedents (or any other intelligence living on Earth by then), to visit Genesis planets in 10-100 million years (the minimal time for the life initially seeded to fully unfold). No, because the involved time spans are so long, that it is not rational to speak of a ‘benefit’.

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

How soon could such a mission be mounted?

Genesis probes could be launched by the same directed-energy launch system planned for the Breakthrough Starshot initiative. Breakthrough Starshot aims to send very fast, very small, very light probes of about 1 gram to another star system. The same laser technology could send something more massive, but slower. Slow is relative, of course. So the in the end it depends on what is optimal.

The magnetic sail paper I recently wrote was a sample mission to show that it was possible. The probe would be about the size of a car (1 tonne) and would travel at a speed of about 1000 km/s – slow for interstellar travel relative to speed of light, but fast for Earth. If you reduce the velocity by a factor of 100, the mass you can propel is 10,000 heavier. You could accelerate a 1-tonne Genesis Probe and it would still fit into the layout of Breakthrough Starshot.

Therefore, the launch facility could see dual use and you wouldn’t need to build something new. Once that is in place one would need to test the magnetic sail. A realistic time span would hence be in the 50-100 years window.

What counter-arguments are there against this?

There are three main lines of counter-arguments. The first is the religious counter-argument, which says that humanity should not play God. The Genesis project is however not about creating life, but to give life the possibility to further develop. Just not on Earth, but elsewhere in the cosmos.

Mars, according to multiple studies, could still support life, raising issues of “planetary protection”. Credit: YONHAP/EPA

The second is the Planetary protection argument, which argues that we should not interfere. Some people objecting to the Genesis Project cite the ‘first directive’ of the Star Trek TV series. The Genesis Project fully supports planetary protection of planets which harbor complex life and of planets on which complex life could potentially develop in the future. The Genesis project will target only planets on which complex life could not develop on its own.

The third argument is about the lack of benefit to humanity. The Genesis Project is expressively not for human benefit. It is reasonable to argue, from the perspective of survival, that the ethical values of a species (like humanity) has to put the good of the species at the center.  Ethical is therefore “what is good for our own species”. Spending a large amount of money on a project, like the Genesis Project, which is expressively not for the benefit of our own species, would then be unethical.


Our thanks go out to Dr. Gros for taking the time to talk to us! We hope to hear more from him in the future and wish him the best of luck with Project Genesis.

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