A Startup Is Developing A 100-Gigawatt Laser To Propel A Probe To Another Star System. That May Be Powerful Enough To "Ignite An Entire City"

An illustration of a Breakthrough Starshot 'nanocraft' being propelled toward the Alpha Centauri star system with a powerful laser beam. Breakthrough Foundation

Katy Evans 10 Dec 2018, 17:06
  • Breakthrough Starshot wants to use powerful lasers to propel tiny robotic probes to Alpha Centauri, a nearby star system that may contain habitable planets.
  • Yuri Milner, a Russian-American billionaire, and other Silicon Valley investors are funding the project.
  • Starshot calls for a 100-gigawatt laser that could shoot into space and accelerate probes called StarChips to 20% of the speed of light.
  • Chief engineer Peter Klupar said the laser would be brighter than the sun and "could ignite an entire city" if reflected back to Earth.

An initiative called Breakthrough Starshot wants to explore another star system using ultra-powerful laser beams and wafer-thin spaceships.

It's a goal that sounds so fantastic, you'd be forgiven for dismissing it as science fiction. But it's no joke, and the project's chief engineer says millions of dollars' worth of work is moving along without any major snags.

Starshot's founders and collaborators include the late Stephen Hawking, Harvard University astronomer Avi Loeb, and Russian-American billionaire Yuri Milner. The concept is based on more than 80 scientific studies about interstellar travel.

Milner and other Silicon Valley investors have even paid $100 million to cover the first 10 years of research and development.

"They had us go and study a whole range of different approaches of how would we send an object to [another star]," Peter Klupar, the engineering director of the nonprofit Breakthrough Foundation and its Starshot initiative, told an audience at the Economist's Space Summit on November 1. "We ended up deciding that the only credible way to do it today was building a large laser based in probably Chile."

The project hopes to propel roughly 1,000 tiny "StarChip" spacecraft toward Alpha Centauri, the second-closest star system to Earth, at 20% of light-speed (about 134 million mph). Each "chip" would weigh 1 gram or less. Another destination under consideration is Proxima Centauri, which is even closer to Earth and may have a habitable planet.

A wide-field view of the sky around the bright star Alpha Centaur. ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2 Acknowledgement: Davide De Marti
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