Project Dragonfly. A Laser-Powered Probe to Alpha Centauri
Breakthrough Starshot engineers are developing a system of powerful lasers to accelerate tiny robotic space probes to 20% the speed of light.
The project was founded in 2016 by Stephen Hawking, billionaire Yuri Milner and Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb., and his concept is based on more than 80 scientific studies on interstellar travel. Starshot has already raised $ 100 million in research and development in its first decade. In the mid-2030s, researchers plan to send about 1000 tiny StarChip probes to the Alpha Centauri solar system, accelerating them to 20% the speed of light (60 thousand km / s).
The essence of the idea is that the radiation from a laser projector with a power of 100 GW will be directed to the so-called «solar sail», which will convert energy into motion. The mass of each chip will not exceed 1 g, and the four-meter sail will be half as much, because its thickness will be about 400 atoms.
The journey of space probes to the neighboring star system will take 25 years and it will take another 4 years for a signal to return to Earth, so we will not be able to see the first photographs of distant worlds until the 2060s..
According to scientists, the beam will be so powerful that it will be water from anywhere in the galaxy, and if he accidentally bounces off the mirror and returns back to Earth, he will be able to burn down an entire city in a matter of minutes. At the moment, work on the project is progressing successfully and more than 50 contracts with contractors have already been concluded.
However, scientists are still talking about the many obstacles that Starshot could threaten. For example, interstellar dust and gases that can rip a sail or divert a probe off course can be detrimental to extreme temperature and acceleration. Ways to tackle these problems are being explored, and scientists hope that technological advances will help them in the coming decades..
Engineers say that before long-distance travel, the technology will be tested within our solar system using a 1 GW laser beam, which will accelerate the devices to 1% of the speed of light. The first samples will be equipped with a 10-meter «solar sail» and will be able to fly to Mars in just a couple of days or less than a month before Jupiter. According to preliminary estimates, the cost of such launches will be much less than when sending classic research vehicles and will amount to thousands, not millions of dollars..
The implementation of such a grandiose project should become easier with the availability of sources of cheap thermonuclear energy. In this direction, scientists have also advanced quite far, and recently in China «artificial sun» successfully heated up to 100 million degrees.
text: Ilya Bauer, photo: Breakthrough Foundation