Missions to the Moon, missions to Mars, robotic explorers to the outer Solar System, a mission to the nearest star, and maybe even a spacecraft to catch up to interstellar objects passing through our system. If you think this sounds like a description of the coming age of space exploration, then you’d be correct! At this moment, there are multiple plans and proposals for missions that will send astronauts and/or probes to all of these destinations to conduct some of the most lucrative scientific research ever performed. Naturally, these mission profiles raise all kinds of challenges, not the least of which is propulsion.
Simply put, humanity is reaching the limits of what conventional (chemical) propulsion can do. To send missions to Mars and other deep space destinations, advanced propulsion technologies are required that offer high acceleration (delta-v), specific impulse (Isp), and fuel efficiency. In a recent paper, Leiden Professor Florian Neukart proposes how future missions could rely on a novel propulsion concept known as the Magnetic Fusion Plasma Drive (MFPD). This device combines aspects of different propulsion methods to create a system that offers high energy density and fuel efficiency significantly greater than conventional methods.
In the Fall of 2017, the first known interstellar object passed through the Solar System, triggering a revolution in astronomy. Because of the amonolous nature of the object, astronomers from all over the world were at a loss to explain what it was. Neither comet, nor asteroid, nor any other conventional object appeared to fit the bill, leading to all kinds of “exotic” explanations.
A particularly exotic explanation was offered by Harvard Professor Avi Loeb and his former postdoc (Dr. Shmuel Bialy), who hypothesized that ‘Oumuamua could have been an extraterrestrial lightsail. Whereas most rebuttal papers questioned the evidence presented, a new study by astrophysicist and UCLA emeritus professor Ben Zuckerman questioned something else: why would an extraterrestrial civilization want to send a probe our way?
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.
Humanity has long dreamed about sending humans to other planets, even before crewed spaceflight became a reality. And with the discovery of thousands of exoplanets in recent decades, particularly those that orbit within neighboring star systems (like Proxima b), that dream seems closer than ever to becoming a reality. But of course, a lot of technical challenges need to be overcome before we can hope to mount such a mission.
In addition, a lot of questions need to be answered. For example, what kind of ship should we send to Proxima b or other nearby exoplanets? And how many people would we need to place aboard that ship? The latter question was the subject of a recent paper written by a team of French researchers who calculated the minimal number of people that would be needed in order to ensure that a healthy multi-generational crew could make the journey to Proxima b.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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’.
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.
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.
For generations, human beings have fantasized about the possibility of finding extra-terrestrial life. And with our ongoing research efforts to discover new and exciting extrasolar planets (aka. exoplanets) in distant star systems, the possibility of actually visiting one of these worlds has received a real shot in the arm. Unfortunately, given the astronomical distances involved, not to mention the cost of mounting an expedition, doing so presents numerous significant challenges.
However, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and the Breakthrough Foundation – an international organization committed to exploration and scientific research – is determined to mount an interstellar mission to Alpha Centauri, our closest stellar neighbor, in the coming years. With the backing of such big name sponsors as Mark Zuckerberg and Stephen Hawking, his latest initiative (named “Project Starshot“) aims to send a tiny spacecraft to the Alpha Centauri system to search for planets and signs of life.