Interstellar travel requires a long-term approach (and people are too impatient)

An artistic illustration of a Breakthrough Starshot nanocraft sailing through the potentially habitable exoplanet Proxima b.

(Planetary Habitability Laboratory, University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo)

The biggest obstacle to mounting an interstellar mission can be humanity short attention span.

It takes a few decades of a long-term, focused, coordinated, and costly work to pull off a project such as Breakthrough, Starshot, who plans to destroy the fleet of sail-equipped robot nanocraft for possible life-supporting exoplanets, with tremendous speeds with the help of the powerful Earth-based lasers.

And our species is not exactly excel at taking the long term view. [Breakthrough Starshot in Pictures: Laser Sailing Nanocraft to Study Alien Planets]

“It took us ten years to go to the moon, and you could say that [relatively fast pace] was largely because we had this — seen at least — existential threat,” Zac Manchester, a member of the Breakthrough Starshot advisory committee, said during the Breakthrough to Discuss conference at Stanford University last April. (That is, the perceived threat of the Soviet Union, the United States’ space-race rival.)

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  • Breakthrough Starshot

  • Breakthrough Starshot in Pictures: Laser Sailing Nanocraft to Study Alien Planets

  • Proxima b

  • Apollo program

“That is the part that worries me: What keeps us motivated, and keep us on the kind of organized, and keep us pushing forward?” added Manchester, who is an assistant professor of aerospace engineering at the university of Stanford.

The Starshot project aims to launch its first vessel within 30 years. If all goes according to plan, this bantam pioneers will get up-close look at Proxima b, of the potentially habitable planet around the sun is the nearest star, the red dwarf Proxima Centauri. Other probes will focus on other nearby alien worlds in a relatively short time thereafter.

The Starshot project invests $100 million, provided by the Russian-born billionaire Yuri Milner, in research and development in the coming half-decade to determine the feasibility of the laser-sailing plan. But totally on interstellar exploration will cost considerably more.

For example, the current “point design” suggests that the $8.4 billion in capital expenditure on the construction of the huge laser-blasting equipment should be at least 0.6 miles (1 kilometer) wide, Starshot member of the team, Kevin Parkin said during a presentation on Breakthrough Discuss. (This price tag is far from set in stone, but point designs are just starting points, Parkin emphasizes.)

For comparison, NASA’s Apollo program cost about $25 billion over the life, which is more than $100 billion in current dollars.

Starshot, the laser system will need to ensure that the beam is trained on a Starshot nanocraft for about 9 minutes to accelerate the probe up to 20 percent of the speed of light, the members of the project team have said. That will be no small feat, considering the sail is only 13.8 feet (4.2 meters) or so wide. (The body of the spacecraft will be about the size of a postage stamp.)

Beaming the images and other data collected by the miniprobes house to the Earth, that the Starshot team aims to do with using the sail as an antenna, is no walk in the park.

So there will be significant technical challenges to overcome, in addition to the economic, cultural and sociological aspects of the objections of Manchester. But interstellar exploration is not meant to be easy.

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