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BACK IN the 1980s and 1990s, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express captivated the London stage for 7408 performances, had Broadway and Las Vegas productions, another in Germany (that’s still playing) and tours of the U.S., Mexico, Australia and Japan.
A recent Q&A item in Science, the weekly magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, reminded me of this high-energy rock musical and its roller-skating singers speeding through the audience on elevated tracks.
“Shooting for a Star” by Zeeya Merali, Science, May 27, 2016, describes Breakthrough Starshot, ambitious plans of Internet billionaire Yuri Milner to send tiny spacecraft on a 4.4 light-year trek to Alpha Centauri, Earth’s nearest star system.
Milner has been a benefactor to science through the Breakthrough Prizes and in Breakthrough Listen, a project for which he has pledged $100 million. Now Milner has pledged another $100 million for Breakthrough Starshot.
A flotilla of thousands of tiny spacecraft would attempt the trip. Each would weigh less than a gram; that is, 454 of them would weigh less than 1 lb. Once in space, each would unfurl a miniscule sail and be propelled by laser beams directed from an Earth-bound array.
As amazing as this may sound, the concept of light-propelled sails is an old one, albeit only in theory. In talking with author Zeeya Merali, Milner notes, “Over the past 20 years, there has been significant progress in microelectronics, nanomaterials and laser technology that means we can now have a sensible conversation about making a gram-scale starship and accelerating it to 20 percent of the speed of light.”
Even at one-fifth the speed of light, some 134 million mph, the trip to Alpha Centauri would take two decades.
Science author Merali asks whether Starshot’s proposed Earth-based array of lasers, many times more powerful than any today, would be feasible. Says Milner, “… in a couple of decades’ time, we think laser power will have increased sufficiently…. But from the outset we identified that there must be some form of global consensus on its use.”
What about a space-based laser array?
Milner: “That would increase the cost 100 times and push the mission back a few hundred years.”
On miniaturization of sensors, imaging and signaling: “We have carried out pretty detailed calculations that show we can shrink down the imaging equipment and sensors, even today. And, surprisingly, to send a signal over trillions of miles, you only need a small laser on board, powered by a watt-scale battery, and that could be made gram-scale. The sail would then be used as a dish to help transmit the signal, while the laser array on Earth would act as a receiver.”
What about his $100 million (and the ultimate $10 billion cost) going to waste?
“Honestly,” says Milner, “we are a very lucky generation because we are the first that could pull this off. And if we do, it will be incredible.
“But if not, we have promised to keep all the results of our research open to the public. One day our civilization will make use of it. It is human nature to explore the world around us and I don’t think that curiosity will ever go away.”
Bravo, Yuri Milner. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016