Hyperfast Spacecraft Could Be Partly Destroyed By Interstellar Dust En Route To Alpha Centauri

Concept art of how the craft itself would be powered by a huge sail fired at by ground-based lasers. Credit: Breakthrough

The Alpha Centauri star system, one that contains three stellar objects, is the nearest to our own Solar System. Apart from being extensively studied and of huge interest to astronomers, a recent groundbreaking study has revealed that a terrestrial planet, possibly Earth-like, is hiding there.

This means that Breakthrough Starshot, a project focused on building an interstellar craft designed to reach Alpha Centauri in just two decades – and one that has the backing of Stephen Hawking, Mark Zuckerberg, and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner – has an even greater impetus to get to our neighboring star system just over 4 light-years away.

However, there may be a problem. The craft is designed to reach 20 percent of the speed of light, which means that any run-ins with the tiniest of objects, including interstellar dust, could erode it down to the point of destruction before it even reaches its destination. This is just one of 20 problems identified by Milner’s scientific team, but it could be the most worrisome.

A new study uploaded to the pre-print server arXiv focuses on the potential problem of interstellar dust impacts on the hyper-velocity spacecraft. Led by Avi Loeb, a professor of astronomy at Harvard University, the team assessing this issue conclude that it may erode the interstellar craft somewhat, but it likely won’t be enough to destroy or cripple it.

“We did a thorough analysis, taking all the relevant physics into consideration,” Loeb told New Scientist. “We didn’t see any showstoppers.”

Breakthrough Starshot concept video. Breakthrough via YouTube

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