Communicating With a Relativistic Spacecraft Gets Pretty Weird

Artistic rendition of an interstellar spacecraft traveling near the speed of light. Credit: Made with ChatGPT

Someday, in the not-too-distant future, humans may send robotic probes to explore nearby star systems. These robot explorers will likely take the form of lightsails and wafercraft (a la Breakthrough Starshot) that will rely on directed energy (lasers) to accelerate to relativistic speeds – aka. a fraction of the speed of light. With that kind of velocity, lightsails and wafercraft could make the journey across interstellar space in a matter of decades instead of centuries (or longer!) Given time, these missions could serve as pathfinders for more ambitious exploration programs involving astronauts.

Of course, any talk of interstellar travel must consider the massive technical challenges this entails. In a recent paper, a team of engineers and astrophysicists considered the effects that relativistic space travel will have on communications. Their results showed that during the cruise phase of the mission (where a spacecraft is traveling close to the speed of light), communications become problematic for one-way and two-way transmissions. This will pose significant challenges for crewed missions but will leave robotic missions largely unaffected.

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Lasers Could Send Missions to Mars in Only 45 Days

Swarm of laser-sail spacecraft leaving the solar system. Credit: Adrian Mann

NASA and China plan to mount crewed missions to Mars in the next decade. While this represents a tremendous leap in terms of space exploration, it also presents significant logistical and technological challenges. For starters, missions can only launch for Mars every 26 months when our two planets are at the closest points in their orbit to each other (during an “Opposition“). Using current technology, it would take six to nine months to transit from Earth to Mars.

Even with nuclear-thermal or nuclear-electric propulsion (NTP/NEP), a one-way transit could take 100 days to reach Mars. However, a team of researchers from Montreal’s McGill University assessed the potential of a laser-thermal propulsion system. According to their study, a spacecraft that relies on a novel propulsion system – where lasers are used to heat hydrogen fuel – could reduce transit times to Mars to just 45 days!

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Will Water Bears be the First Interstellar Astronauts?

In just a few years, astronauts will walk on the surface of the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era. In addition to the Artemis Program, NASA’s fabled return to the Moon, there are also a number of planned missions involving the European Space Agency (ESA), JAXA, China, and Russia. By the 2030s, NASA and China hope to send crewed missions to Mars, which will culminate in the creation of a permanent base on the surface.

When it comes to interstellar missions, however, there are no plans for crewed missions on the table. While there are proposals for sending robotic missions, sending astronauts to nearby stars and exoplanets simply isn’t feasible yet. However, according to new research led by the University of California, interstellar missions could be conducted in the near future that would have tardigrades (aka. “Water Bears”) as their crew.

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