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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Tiny Swarming Spacecraft Could Establish Communications with Proxima Centauri

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

Achieving interstellar travel has been the dream of countless generations, but the challenges remain monumental. Aside from the vast distances involved, there are also the prohibitive energy requirements and the sheer cost of assembling spacecraft that could survive the trip. Right now, the best bet for achieving an interstellar mission within a reasonable timeframe (i.e., a single person’s lifetime) is to build gram-scale spacecraft paired with lightsails. Using high-power laser arrays, these spacecraft could be accelerated to a fraction of the speed of light (relativistic speeds) and reach nearby stars in a few decades.

There are a handful of major projects, like Breakthrough Starshot, that hope to leverage this technology to create spacecraft that could reach Alpha Centauri in a few decades (instead of centuries). This technology also presents other opportunities, like facilitating communications across interstellar distances. This is the idea recently by a team of researchers led by the Initiative for Interstellar Studies (i4is). In a recent paper, they recommended that a swarm of gram-scale spacecraft could rely on their launch laser to maintain optical communications with Earth.

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