11 June 2016

Scientific American: “Can Starshot Work?”

The Breakthrough Starshot project won’t take people to another star, or even take a conventional robotic explorer. Instead the goal is to propel nano-spacecraft, ‘Starchips’, to the Alpha Centauri system, using the pressure of light on four-meter sails of reflective material. These ultra-lightweight vehicles would end up shooting through that distant system (some 4.3 light years, or 26 trillion miles away) with a velocity of some 20% of the speed of light - a mind-boggling 134 million miles per hour. Such a blistering pace would be achieved in the first couple of minutes of 60,000 g acceleration from a near-Earth starting point.

It is, to say the least, pretty audacious.

So does it have a chance of working?

Caleb A. Scharf

Short answer: not with our current technology, not anytime soon. But solving some of the numerous challenges this project entails – or at least working on them – should yield interesting results.

The bright star Alpha Centauri and its surroundings
This wide-field view of the sky around the bright star Alpha Centauri was created from photographic images forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2. The star appears so big just because of the scattering of light by the telescope’s optics as well as in the photographic emulsion. Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to the Solar System.
Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2

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