It’s no secret that humanity is poised to embark on a renewed era of space exploration. In addition to new frontiers in astronomical and cosmological research, crewed missions are also planned for the coming decades that will send astronauts back to the Moon and to Mars for the first time. Looking even further, there are also ideas for interstellar missions like Breakthrough Starshot and Project Dragonfly and NASA’s Starlight.
These mission concepts entail pairing a nanocraft with a lightsail, which would then accelerated by a directed-energy array (lasers) to achieve a fraction of the speed of light (aka. relativistic velocity). Naturally, this raises a number of technical and engineering challenges, not the least of which is communications. In a recent study, a team of scientists sought to address that very issue and considered various methods that might be used.
On October 19th, 2017, astronomers were astounded to learn that an interstellar object (named ‘Oumuamua) flew by Earth on its way out of the Solar System. Years later, astronomers are still debating what this object was – a comet fragment, a hydrogen iceberg, or an extraterrestrial solar sail? What’s more, the arrival of 2I/Borisov two years later showed how interstellar objects (ISOs) regularly enter our Solar System (some even stay!)
In a few decades, the Breakthrough Starshot initiative hopes to send a sailcraft to the neighboring system of Alpha Centauri. Using a lightsail and a directed energy (aka. laser) array, a tiny spacecraft could be accelerated to 20% the speed of light (0.2 c). This would allow Starshot to make the journey to Alpha Centauri and study any exoplanets there in just 20 years, thus fulfilling the dream of interstellar exploration within our lifetimes.
Naturally, this plan presents a number of engineering and logistical challenges, one of which involves the transmission of data back to Earth. In a recent study, Starshot Systems Director Dr. Kevin L.G. Parkin analyzes the possibility of using a laser to transmit data back to Earth. This method, argued Parkin, is the most effective way for humanity to get a glimpse of what lies beyond our Solar System.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On July 14th, 2015, theNew 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 2probe 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.
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.
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.