Tiny “Starchip” Spacecraft Could Reach Another Solar System By 2055
NASA’s TESS program, or Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, has confirmed 3,862 exoplanets to date. Exoplanets are planets orbiting stars other than our Sun. Not even a decade ago we had no way to observe planets so far from Earth. Now we’ve confirmed almost 4,000 and have another 2,898 candidates awaiting confirmation.
It’s conceivable that some of these exoplanets may have environments suitable for life as we know it. But even the closest exoplanets to Earth, in the Proxima Centauri and Alpha Centauri star systems are still 4.234 and 4.367 light years away respectively. At our current top speed for spacecraft, 165,000 mph, it would take a probe 17,220 years to reach the closest of the two. Dealing with timescales of that magnitude these exoplanets may as well not exist.
However, a team of researchers is working to reduce this time. Drastically. Their hope is to have a system of probes that could be deployed by the early 2030s that would make the trip in roughly 25 years. Adding four years for footage to be sent back to Earth once the probes arrive at their destination, we may have our first close up pictures of an exosolar world by the early 2060s.
Tiny Laser-Propelled “Starchips”
Whatever image you have in your mind of what a spacecraft or space probe looks like, these probes are not that. For one, they’re very, very small. The probes themselves are the size of a small computer chip and weigh less than one gram each. They would carry an onboard camera, sensors, and a communications array. Each is attached to a very thin “sail”, a 400 atom thick material that’s stretched to a length of about four meters. These sails catch photons and convert that energy into forward motion.
What supplies the photons? Lasers. Extremely powerful lasers. Mind-bogglingly powerful lasers. One researcher estimated that if the combined energy generated by the laser array were reflected back to Earth it could ignite an entire city instantaneously.
But of course that’s not the plan (and there’s no way for that to happen). Instead the lasers will be beamed at a fleet of 1,000 “starchips”, accelerating them to 20% of the speed of light, or 134 million mph. That’s 812 times faster than our current top speed, and it’s this frighteningly fast velocity that allows the drastic trip length reduction.
Insane Plan or Sound Science?
This isn’t some crackpot notion. To date, $100 million has been poured into the project to fund the next ten years of research. Many prominent scientists have lent support and the underlying science has been proven out repeatedly. Of course that doesn’t mean the plan is without issues.
For one, the cost to build and power the massive lasers needed to power the starchips could be prohibitively expensive. And no one is entirely sure whether the thin sails or the chips themselves will be able to survive the massive acceleration rates they’ll be subjected to. There’s also the problem of extrasolar gas and dust collisions. At 20% the speed of light a collision with even a single speck of space dust would destroy the probes. These aren’t impossible problems however, project scientists say. Costs can drop as new technologies become available. And the survival rate due to collisions is metered by the sheer number of probes released. Even if only a handful of the original 1,000 starchips survive the trip the project would be a success.
Only time will tell. As the next decade unfolds the project will either bear itself out or collapse under the weight of its lofty goals. We wholeheartedly hope for the former.