Riding the Wave of a Supernova to Go Interstellar

When it comes to the challenges posed by interstellar travel, there are no easy answers. The distances are immense, the amount of energy needed to make the journey is tremendous, and the time scales involved are (no pun!) astronomical. But what if there was a way to travel between stars using ships that take advantage of natural phenomena to reach relativistic velocities (a fraction of the speed of light).

Already, scientists have identified situations where objects in our Universe are able to do this – including hypervelocity stars and meteors accelerated by supernovae explosions. Delving into this further, Harvard professors Manasvi Lingam and Abraham Loeb recently explored how interstellar spacecraft could harness the waves produced by a supernova explosion in the same way that sailing ships harness the wind.

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Of the Two Stars in Alpha Centauri, One is Probably More Habitable than the Other

In the past, the number of known exoplanets has exploded, with 4093 confirmed detections so far (and another 4,727 candidates awaiting confirmation). With the discovery of so many planets that are dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of light years away, a great deal of attention has understandably been directed to our nearest stellar neighbors. Could planets be right next door, with the possibility of life being there as well?

While a potentially-habitable planet was recently discovered around Proxima Centauri (Proxima b), Alpha Centauri remains something of a question mark. But thanks to a recent study from the Georgia Institute of Technology (GIT), we might be getting closer to determining if this neighboring system supports life. In a twist, the study revealed that one of the stars in the binary system is more likely to be habitable than the other.

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What’s the Best Way to Sail From World to World? Electric Sails or Solar Sails?

In the past decade, thousands of planets have been discovered beyond our Solar System. This has had the effect of renewing interest in space exploration, which includes the possibility of sending spacecraft to explore exoplanets. Given the challenges involved, a number of advanced concepts are currently being explored, like the time-honored concept of a light sail (as exemplified by Breakthrough Starshot and similar proposals).

However, in more recent years, scientists have proposed a potentially more-effective concept known as the electric sail, where a sail composed of wire mesh generates electrical charges to deflect solar wind particles, thus generating momentum. In a recent study, two Harvard scientists compared and contrasted these methods to determine which would be more advantageous for different types of missions.

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Prototype of a Future Interstellar Probe was Just Tested on a Balloon

At the University of California, Santa Barbara, researchers with the UCSB Experimental Cosmology Group (ECG) are currently working on ways to achieve the dream of interstellar flight. Under the leadership of Professor Philip Lubin, the group has dedicated a considerable amount of effort towards the creation of an interstellar mission consisting of directed-energy light sail and a wafer-scale spacecraft (WSS) “wafercraft“.

If all goes well, this spacecraft will be able to reach relativistic speeds (a portion of the speed of light) and make it to the nearest star system (Proxima Centauri) within our lifetimes. Recently, the ECG achieved a major milestone by successfully testing a prototype version of their wafercraft (aka. the “StarChip“). This consisted of sending the prototype via balloon into the stratosphere to test its functionality and performance.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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