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.
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.
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.
Scientists, futurists, and science fiction writers have been talking about it for over a century, and fans of science fiction and futurists have fantasized about it for just as long. The portable directed-energy weapon that zaps your enemies, rendering them incapacitated or reducing them to a pile of ashes!
The concept has gone through many iterations over the decades, ranging from laser pistols and cannons to phasers. And yet, this staple of science fiction is largely based in science fact. Since the early 20th century, scientists have sought to develop a working directed-energy weapon, based on ideas put forward by many inventors and scientists.
A”death ray” is a theoretical particle beam or electromagnetic weapon that was originally proposed independently during the 1920s and 30s by multiple scientists. From these initial proposals, research into energy-based weapons has been ongoing. While most examples come predominantly from science fiction, several applications and proposals have been produced during the latter half of the 20th century.
During the early 20th century, many scientists claimed that they had created a working death ray. For instance, in September of 1924, British inventor Harry Grindell-Matthews attempted to sell what he reported to be a death ray that could destroy human life and bring down planes at a distance to the British Air Ministry.
While he was never able to produce a functioning model or demonstrate it to the military, news of this prompted American inventor Edwin R. Scott to claim that he was the first to develop a death ray. According to Scott, he had done so in 1923, which was the result of the nine years he spent as a student and protege of Charles P. Steinmetz – a German-American professor at Union College, New York.
In 1934, Spanish inventor Antonion Longoria claimed to have invented a death ray machine which he had tested on pigeons at a distance of about 6.5 km (4 miles). He also claimed to have killed mice that were enclosed in a thick-walled metal chamber.
However, it was famed inventor and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla who provided the most detailed framework for such a device. In a 1934 interview with Time Magazine, Tesla explained the concept of a “teleforce” (or directed energy) weapon which would be capable of destroying entire squadrons of airplanes or an entire army at a distance of 400 km (250 miles).
Tesla tried to interest the US War Department and several European countries in the device at the time, though none contracted with Tesla to build it. As Tesla described his invention in an article titled “A Machine to End War“, which appeared in Liberty Magazine in 1935:
“this invention of mine does not contemplate the use of any so-called ‘death rays’. Rays are not applicable because they cannot be produced in requisite quantities and diminish rapidly in intensity with distance. All the energy of New York City (approximately two million horsepower) transformed into rays and projected twenty miles, could not kill a human being, because, according to a well known law of physics, it would disperse to such an extent as to be ineffectual. My apparatus projects particles which may be relatively large or of microscopic dimensions, enabling us to convey to a small area at a great distance trillions of times more energy than is possible with rays of any kind. Many thousands of horsepower can thus be transmitted by a stream thinner than a hair, so that nothing can resist.”
Based on his descriptions, the device would constitute a large tower that could be mounted on top of a building, positioned either next to shores or near crucial infrastructure. This weapon, he claimed, would be defensive in nature, in that it would make any nation employing it impregnable to attack from air, land or sea, and up to a distance of 322 km (200 miles).
During World War II, multiple efforts were mounted by the Axis powers to create so-called “death rays”. For instance, Imperial Japan developed a concept they called “Ku-Go”, which sought to use microwaves created in a large magnetron as a weapon.
Meanwhile, the Nazis mounted two projects, one which was led by the researcher known as Schiebold that involved a particle accelerator and beryllium rods. The second, led by Dr. Rolf Wideroe, was developed at the Dresden Plasma Physics Laboratory until it was bombed in Feb. 1945. In April of that year, as the war was coming to close, the device was taken into custody by the US Army.
On January 7th, 1943, engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla died in his room at the Hotel New Yorker in Manhattan. A story quickly developed that within his room, Tesla had scientific paper in his possession that provided the most detailed description yet for a death ray. These documents, it was claimed, had been seized by the US military, who wanted them for the sake of the war effort.
Examples in Science Fiction:
Ray guns, and other examples of directed-energy weapons have been a common feature in science fiction for over a century. One of the first known examples comes from H.G. Wells seminal book, War of the Worlds, which featured Martian war machines that used “heat rays”. However, the first use of the term was in The Messiah of the Cylinder (1917), by Victor Rousseau Emanuel.
Ray guns were also a regular feature in comic books like Buck Rogers (first published in 1928) and Flash Gordon, published in 1934. In Alfred Noyes’ 1940 novel The Last Man (released as No Other Man in the US), a death ray developed by a German scientist named Mardok is unleashed in a global war and almost wipes out the human race.
The concept of the blaster was introduced by Isaac Asimov’s The Foundation Series, which were described as nuclear-powered handheld weapons that fired energetic particles. In Frank Herbert’s Dune series, energy weapons take the form of continuous-wave laser projectors (lasguns), which are rendered obsolete by the invention of “Holtzman shields”.
According to Herbert, the interaction of a lasgun blast and this force field results in a nuclear explosion which typically kills both the gunner and the target. Further examples of death rays can be found in just about any science fiction franchise, ranging from phasers (Star Trek) and laser blasters (Star Wars) to spaceship-mounted beam cannons.
In terms of real-world applications, many attempts have been made to create directed-energy weapons for offensive and defensive purposes. For instance, the development of radar before World War II was the result of attempts to find applications for directed electromagnetic energy (in this case, radio waves).
In the 1980s, U.S. President Ronald Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program (nicknamed “Star Wars”). It suggested that lasers, perhaps space-based X-ray lasers, could destroy ICBMs in flight. During the Iraq War, electromagnetic weapons, including high power microwaves were used by the U.S. military to disrupt and destroy the Iraqi electronic systems.
On March 18th, 2009 Northrop Grumman announced that its engineers in Redondo Beach had successfully built and tested an electric laser capable of producing a 100-kilowatt ray of light, powerful enough to destroy cruise missiles, artillery, rockets and mortar rounds. And on July 19th, 2010, an anti-aircraft laser was unveiled at the Farnborough Airshow, described as the “Laser Close-In Weapon System”.
In 2014, the US Navy made headlines when they unveiled their AN/SEQ-3 Laser Weapon System (or XN-1 LaWS), a directed-energy weapon designed for use on military vessels. Ostensibly, the purpose of the weapon is defensive, designed to either blind enemy sensors (when set to low-intensity) or shoot down unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) when set to high-intensity.
Then is what is known as “Active Denial Systems”, which use a microwave source to heat up the water in the target’s skin, thus causing physical pain. Currently, this concept is being developed by the US Air Force Research Laboratory and Raytheon – a US defense contractor – as a means of riot-control.
A Dazzler is another type of directed-energy weapon, one which uses infrared or visible light to temporarily blind an enemy. Targets can include human beings, or their sensors (particularly in the infrared band). The emitters are usually lasers (hence the term “laser dazzler”)and can be portable or mounted on the outside of vehicles (as with the Russian T-80 and T-90 tank).
An example of the former is the Personnel Halting And Stimulation Response rifle (PHASR), a prototype non-lethal laser dazzler being developed by the US Air Force Research Laboratory’s Directed Energy Directorate. Its purpose is give infantry or other military personnel the ability to temporarily disorient and blind a target without causing permanent damage.
Blinding laser weapons were banned by treated under the UN Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, which was passed in 1995. However, the terms of this protocol do not apply to directed-energy weapons that inflict only temporary blindness.
We’ve come a long way since the term “raygun” became a household name. At this rate, who knows what the future will hold? Will Tesla’s dream of a Death Ray ever come true? Will we see directed-energy satellites put in orbit, or handheld lasers becoming the mainstay of armed forces and space explorers? Hard to say. All we can be sure of is that the truth will likely be stranger than the fiction!
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.
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.
“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.
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!
Back in April, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking unveiled Project Starshot. As the latest venture by Breakthrough Initiatives, Starshot was conceived with the aims of sending a tiny spacecraft to the neighboring star system Alpha Centauri in the coming decades.
Relying on a sail that would be driven up to relativistic speeds by lasers, this craft would theoretically be capable of making the journey is just 20 years. Naturally, this project has attracted its fair share of detractors. While the idea of sending a star ship to another star system in our lifetime is certainly appealing, it presents numerous challenges.
Assessing the risks of interstellar travel, this paper addresses the greatest threat where relativistic speed is concerned: catastrophic collisions! To put it mildly, space is not exactly an empty medium (despite what the name might suggest). In truth, there are a lot of things out there on the “stellar highway” that can cause a fatal crash.
For instance, within interstellar space, there are clouds of dust particles and even stray atoms of gas that are the result of stellar formations and other processes. Any spacecraft traveling at 20% the speed of light (0.2 c) could easily be damaged or destroyed if it suffered a collision with even the tiniest of this particulate matter.
“To evaluate the risks, we calculated the energy that each interstellar atom or dust grain transfers to the ship along the path of the projectile in the ship. This acquired energy rapidly heats a spot on the ship surface to high temperature, resulting in damage by reducing the material strength, melting or evaporation.”
In short, the danger of a collision comes not from the physical impact, but from the energy that is generated due to the fact that the spaceship is traveling so fast. However, what they found was that while collisions with tiny dust grains are very likely, collisions with heavier atoms that can do the most damage would be more rare.
Nevertheless, the damage from so many tiny collisions will certainly add up over time. And it would only take one collision with a larger particle to end the mission. As Dr. Hoang explained:
“We found that the ship would be damaged by collision with heavy atoms and dust grains in the interstellar medium. Heavy atoms, mostly iron can damage the surface to a depth of 0.1mm. More importantly, the surface of the ship is eroded gradually by dust grains, to a depth of about 1mm. The ship may be completely destroyed if encountering a very big dust grain larger than 15micron, although it is extremely rare.”
In terms of damage, what they determined was that each iron atom can produce a damage track of 5 nanometer across, whereas a typical dust silicate grain measuring just 0.1. micron across (and containing about one billion iron atoms) could produce a large crater on the ship’s surface.
Over time, the cumulative effect of this damage would pose a major risk for the ship’s survival. As a result, Dr. Hoang and his team recommended that some shielding would need to be mounted on the ship, and that it wouldn’t hurt to “clear the road” a little as well.
“We recommended to protect the ship by putting a shield of about 1 mm thickness made of strong, high melting temperature material like graphite.” he said. “We also suggested to destroy interstellar dust by using part of energy from laser sources.”
These projects, which are being funded by NASA, seek to harness the technology behind directed-energy propulsion to rapidly send missions to Mars and other locations within the Solar System in the future. Long-term applications include interstellar missions, similar to Starshot.
In all cases, directed-energy technology is being proposed as the solution to the problems posed by space travel. In the case of Starshot, these include (but are not limited to) inefficiency, mass, and/or the limited speeds of conventional rockets and ion engines.
As Professor Lubin told Universe Today via email, he and his colleagues are in general agreement with the research team and their findings:
“The recent paper by Hoang et al revisits the section (7) in our paper “A Roadmap to Interstellar Flight” that discusses our calculation for the effects of the ISM on the wafer scale spacecraft. Their general conclusion on the effects of the gas and dust collisions were essentially the same as ours, namely that it is an issue, but not a fatal one, if one uses the spacecraft geometry we recommend in our paper, namely orient the spacecraft edge on (like a Frisbee in flight) and then use an edge coating (we use [Beryllium], they use graphite).”
“As for the sail interactions with the ISM we recommend either rotating the sail so it is edge on (lower cross section) or ejecting the sail after the initial few minutes of acceleration as it is no longer needed for acceleration. However. as we desire to use the sail as a reflector for the laser communications we prefer to keep it, though a secondary reflector could be deployed later in the mission if necessary. These detailed questions will be part of the evolving design phase.”
Indeed, there are many safety hazards that have to be accounted for before any mission to interstellar space could be mounted. But as this recent study has shown – with which Professor Lubin agrees – they are not insurmountable, and a mission to Alpha Centauri (or, fingers crossed, Proxima Centauri!) could be performed if the proper precautions are taken.
Who knew the future of space travel would be every bit as cool as we’ve been led to believe – complete with lasers and shielding?
And be sure to enjoy this video from NASA 360, addressing directed-energy propulsion:
Setting foot on a distant planet… we’ve all dreamed about it at one time or another. And it has been a staple of science fiction for almost a century. Engage the warp dive, spool up the FLT, open a wormhole, or jump into the cryochamber. Next stop, Alpha Centauri (or some other star)! But when it comes to turning science fiction into science fact, there are certain unfortunate realities we have to contend with. For starters, none of the technology for faster-than-light travel exists!
Second, sending crewed mission to even the nearest planets is a very expensive and time consuming endeavor. But thanks to ongoing developments in the fields of miniaturization, electronics and direct-energy, it might be possible to send tiny spacecraft to distant stars in a single lifetime, which could carry something of humanity along with them. Such is the hope of Professor Philip Lubin and Travis Bradshears, the founders of “Voices of Humanity“.
For people familiar with directed-energy concepts, the name Philip Lubin should definitely ring a bell. A professor from the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), he is also the mind behind the NASA-funded Directed Energy Propulsion for Interstellar Exploraiton (DEEP-IN) project, and the Directed Energy Interstellar Study. These projects seek to use laser arrays and large sails to achieve relativistic flight for the sake of making interstellar missions a reality.
Looking beyond propulsion and into the realm of public participation in space exploration, Prof. Lubin and Bradshears (an engineering and physics student from the University of California, Berkeley) came together to launch Voices of Humanity (VoH) in 2015. Inspired by their work with NASA, this Kickstarter campaign aims to create the world’s first “Space Time Capsule”.
Intrinsic to this is the creation of a Humanity Chip, a custom semiconductor memory device that can be attached to the small, wafer-scale spacecraft that are part of DEEP-IN and other directed-energy concepts. This chip will contain volumes of data, including tweets, media files, and even the digital DNA records of all those who want to take part in the mission. As Professor Lubin told Universe Today in a phone interview:
“We wanted to put on board some part of humanity. We couldn’t shrink ray people down, so Travis and I brainstormed and thought that the next best thing would be to allow people to become digital astronauts. We wanted to pave the way for interstellar missions where we could send the essence of humanity to the stars – “Emissaries of the Earth”, if you will. We wanted to pave the way for that.”
This digital archive would be similar to the Golden Record that was placed on the Voyager probes, but would be much more sophisticated. Taking advantage of all the advances made in computing, electronics and data storage in recent decades, it would contain many millions of times the data, but comprise a tiny fraction of the volume.
In fact, as Lupin explained, the state of technology today allows us to create a digital archive that would be about the same size a fingernail, and which would require no more than a single gram of mass to be allocated on a silicon wafer-ship. And while such a device is not the same as sending astronauts on interstellar voyages to explore other planets, it does allow humanity to send something of itself.
“We now have the technology to put a message from everyone on Earth onto a small piece of a tiny spacecraft,” said Lupin. “We want to begin today, and not just for the future, by putting information onto anything that is launched from Earth. We are the point technologically, at this moment, that we could put a small portion of humanity on this spacecraft.”
In essence, human beings would be able to create the interstellar equivalent of a “Baby on Board” sticker, except for humanity instead. This sticker would be no larger than a postage stamp, and could be mounted on every craft to leave Earth in the near future. In essence, all missions departing from Earth could have “Humanity on Board”.
The plan is to launch their first chip – Humanity Chip 1.0 – into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in 2017. This will be followed by the creation of Humanity Chip 2.0, which take advantage of the developments that will have occurred by next year. Eventually, they hope that Humanity Chips will be a part of missions that increase in distance from Earth, eventually culminating in a mission to interstellar space.
While there are no deep-space missions ready to go just yet, several concepts are on the table for interplanetary missions that will rely on wafer-scale spacecraft (like NASA’s DEEP-IN concept). If their Kickstarter campaign succeeds in raising the $30,000 necessary to create a Humanity Chip, Prof. Lubin and Bradshears also hope to create a “Black Hole Chip”, where participants will be able to record their “less than happy” thoughts as part of the data, which will then be sent off into space forever.
They also have a stretch goal in mind, known as the “Beam Me Up” objective. In the event that their campaign is able to raise $100,000, they will use the funds to create a ground-based laser array that will beam a package of encoded data towards a target destination in space.
As of the penning of this article, Prof. Lubin and Bradshears have raised a total of $5,656 towards their goal of $30,000. The campaign kicked off earlier this month and will remain open for another 22 days. So if you’re interested in contributing to Humanity Chip 1.0, or becoming an “Emissary of the Earth”, there’s still plenty of time.
And, in a recent article titled “The Search for Directed Intelligence“- which appeared in the March 2016 issue of REACH – Reviews in Human Space Exploration – Lupin indicated that advances in directed-energy applications might also help in the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. Essentially, by looking for for sources of directed energy systems, he claims, we might be able to find our way to other civilizations.
It is an exciting age, where advances in telecommunications and electronics are allowing us to overcome the vast distances involved in space travel. In the future, astronauts may rely on robotic explorers and fast-as-light communications to explore distant worlds (a process known as telexploration). And with a digital archive on board, we will be able to send personal greetings to any life that may already exist there.
For those who would say “sharing personal information with extra-terrestrials is a bad idea”, I would remind them that they (probably) don’t have access to Twitter or our financial records. All the same, it might be wise not to include your Social Security (or Social Insurance) number in the recordings, or any other personal data you wouldn’t share with strangers!
And who knows? Someday, we may start colonizing other planets by sending our DNA there direct. The truth is always stranger than fiction, after all!
And be sure to check out this video produced by Voices for Humanity:
Finding examples of intelligent life other than our own in the Universe is hard work. Between spending decades listening to space for signs of radio traffic – which is what the good people at the SETI Institute have been doing – and waiting for the day when it is possible to send spacecraft to neighboring star systems, there simply haven’t been a lot of options for finding extra-terrestrials.
But in recent years, efforts have begun to simplify the search for intelligent life. Thanks to the efforts of groups like the Breakthrough Foundation, it may be possible in the coming years to send “nanoscraft” on interstellar voyages using laser-driven propulsion. But just as significant is the fact that developments like these may also make it easier for us to detect extra-terrestrials that are trying to find us.
Not long ago, Breakthrough Initiatives made headlines when they announced that luminaries like Stephen Hawking and Mark Zuckerberg were backing their plan to send a tiny spacecraft to Alpha Centauri. Known as Breakthrough Starshot, this plan involved a refrigerator-sized magnet being towed by a laser sail, which would be pushed by a ground-based laser array to speeds fast enough to reach Alpha Centauri in about 20 years.
In addition to offering a possible interstellar space mission that could reach another star in our lifetime, projects like this have the added benefit of letting us broadcast our presence to the rest of the Universe. Such is the argument put forward by Philip Lubin, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the brains behind Starshot.
In a paper titled “The Search for Directed Intelligence” – which appeared recently in arXiv and will be published soon in REACH – Reviews in Human Space Exploration – Lubin explains how systems that are becoming technologically feasible on Earth could allow us to search for similar technology being used elsewhere. In this case, by alien civilizations. As Lubin shared with Universe Today via email:
“In our SETI paper we examine the implications of a civilization having directed energy systems like we are proposing for both our NASA and Starshot programs. In this sense the NASA (DE-STAR) and Starshot arrays represent what other civilizations may possess. In another way, the receive mode (Phased Array Telescope) may be useful to search and study nearby exoplanets.”
Using these as a template, Lubin believes that other species in the Universe could be using this same kind of directed energy (DE) systems for the same purposes – i.e. propulsion, planetary defense, scanning, power beaming, and communications. And by using a rather modest search strategy, he and colleagues propose observing nearby star and planetary systems to see if there are any signs of civilizations that possess this technology.
This could take the form of “spill-over”, where surveys are able to detect errant flashes of energy. Or they could be from an actual beacon, assuming the extra-terrestrials us DE to communicate. As is stated in the paper authored by Lubin and his colleagues:
“There are a number of reasons a civilization would use directed energy systems of the type discussed here. If other civilizations have an environment like we do they might use DE system for applications such as propulsion, planetary defense against “debris” such as asteroids and comets, illumination or scanning systems to survey their local environment, power beaming across large distances among many others. Surveys that are sensitive to these “utilitarian” applications are a natural byproduct of the “spill over” of these uses, though a systematic beacon would be much easier to detect.”
According to Lubin, this represents a major departure from what projects like SETI have been doing during the last few decades. These efforts, which can be classified as “passive” were understandable in the past, owing to our limited means and the challenges in sending out messages ourselves. For one, the distances involved in interstellar communication are incredibly vast.
Even using DE, which moves at the speed of light, it would still take a message over 4 years to reach the nearest star, 1000 years to reach the Kepler planets, and 2 million years to the nearest galaxy (Andromeda). So aside from the nearest stars, these time scales are far beyond a human lifetime; and by the time the message arrived, far better means of communication would have evolved.
Second, there is also the issue of the targets being in motion over the vast timescales involved. All stars have a transverse velocity relative to our line of sight, which means that any star system or planet targeted with a burst of laser communication would have moved by the time the beam arrived. So by adopting a pro-active approach, which involves looking for specific kinds of behavior, we could bolster our efforts to find intelligent life on distant exoplanets.
But of course, there are still many challenges that need to be overcome, not the least of which are technical. But more than that, there is also the fact that what we are looking for may not exist. As Lubin and his colleagues state in one section of the paper: “What is an assumption, of course, is that electromagnetic communications has any relevance on times scales that are millions of years and in particular that electromagnetic communications (which includes beacons) should have anything to do with wavelengths near human vision.”
In other words, assuming that aliens are using technology similar to our own is potentially anthropocentric. However, when it comes to space exploration and finding other intelligent species, we have to work with what we have and what we know. And as it stands, humanity is the only example of a space-faring civilization known to us. As such, we can hardly be faulted for projecting ourselves out there.
Here’s hoping ET is out there, and relies on energy beaming to get things done. And, fingers crossed, here’s hoping they aren’t too shy about being noticed!