NASA has announced that it is participating in an effort initiated by British astrophysicist Professor Stephen Hawking and venture capitalist Yuri Milner to build a very small spacecraft or nanocraft that may reach Alpha Centauri — the closest star system to Earth — in 20 years, traveling roughly one-fifth the speed of light.
Breakthrough Starshot, a plan to construct a fleet of self-repairing spacecraft to discover a new habitable planet for humanity, was initiated by a group of scientists, such as Stephen Hawking.
The group of scientists hopes to have the ability to launch a tiny “StarChip” to world Proxima b, a rocky Earth-like exoplanet orbiting in the habitable zone of our Sun’s closest stellar neighbor, the dwarf star Proxima Centauri, about 4.22 light years away.
Proxima b was discovered in August by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) using NASA’s Kepler Telescope. Its parent star, the dwarf star Proxima Centauri, is a part of this star system Alpha Centauri, consisting of two other stars, Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B, about 4.22 light years away.
Although Proxima b is nearer to its parent star Proxima Centauri than the Earth is to the Sun, it lies at the “Goldilocks” or “habitable zone” of its star, where temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold for life-supporting liquid water and other conditions necessary for life as we know it on Earth to thrive.
The group of scientists involved in Breakthrough Starshot plan to reach the Proxima Centauri system within 20 years by accelerating their tiny “StarChip” to one-fifth (20 percent) of the speed of light. They plan to achieve the unbelievable speed by shooting lasers in the nanocraft from beamers located on Earth.
The scientists hope that successful launch of a very small probe to our closest star system would pave the way for the launch of a fleet of spacecraft to seek for habitable planets in other star systems that are nearby. They hope that the fleet of spacecraft will find an atmosphere capable of supporting settlers on Proxima elsewhere or b.
“If further research concludes that the terms of its [Proxima b] atmosphere are suitable to support life, this is possibly among the most important scientific discoveries we will ever make,” commented Dr John Barnes at a study printed from the journal Nature.
NASA’s participation in Breakthrough Starshot is to help solve one of the significant problems facing the job: how to protect the spacecraft from the intense cosmic radiation it will encounter during interstellar flight.
According to scientists, an ordinary spacecraft could not survive damaging cosmic radiation during a 4.37 light-year travel (25 trillion kilometers) that could take up to 30 years.
The apparent solution to the dilemma is to provide adequate radiation shielding for the sensitive components of the spacecraft. The approach is not feasible because the plan to accelerate the spacecraft means that it needs to be a nanocraft.
Radiation shielding slow down the speed of the craft and would entail using materials that add to the size and weight of the craft.
Among many presented at the International Electron Devices Meeting in San Francisco last week, another suggestion, would entail charting a course to Alpha Centauri that avoids distance areas that are high-radiation. But experts rejected the proposal, pointing out that the best path would still not decrease radiation exposure. It would just add to the voyage.
NASA and researchers in the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) eventually suggested equipping the spacecraft with “self-healing” transistors or silicon chips, according into Engadget.
After researchers in KAIST conducted preliminary evaluations using lightweight nanowire transistors with the capability to radiation damage, they advocated the proposal as a possible way to overcome the problem of interstellar radiation that was damaging.
However, a lot of development and research is still needed to demonstrate the feasibly of this plan. But scientists are optimistic that it is the very best and most promising alternative.
“The limitation that confronts us now is the great void between us and the stars. But now we can surpass it,” Hawking said when job Breakthrough StarShot was first announced in April. “With light beams, light emitting, and the lightest spacecraft ever built, we could launch a mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation.”
[Featured image by Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/AP Images]