Starshot: interstellar mission with many challenges


Countless lasers are firing 100 gigawatts of power on a wafer-thin sail in orbit and accelerates a small spacecraft to a fifth of the speed of light. It should reach the nearest star within 20 years – about 1000 times faster than the previous units, hence the stated goal of Breakthrough Starshot. The project has progressed since it was founded by billionaire Yuri Milner in 2016, supporting the mission of the KickSat-2 technology test satellite, which launched a hundred Sprite mini-satellites in March 2019. They are three or three high inches, weigh only a few grams and resemble interstellar probes. But they must be even easier to get the speed they need, says Technology Review in its latest issue.

This article is taken from the Technology Review issue 5/2019. The magazine is available from 04.25.2019 in stores and directly in the heise store.
Highlights of the magazine:

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"Sails, lasers and communication technology are the biggest challenges," explains Project Manager Pete Worden, former director of the Nasa Ames Research Center. The probe itself will no longer be a flying electronic chip, a few centimeters long and as thin as a wafer. However, the sail must have an area of ​​20 to 100 square meters. It could therefore only have a thickness of a few hundred atoms, otherwise it would be too heavy. Worden believes that there are materials suitable for this, but does not provide details. Promising seems to be photonic crystals. They consist of a few nanowires and are usually used for optical transmission of data in telecommunications. Not only are they ultra-thin, light and robust, but they also reflect part of the laser energy. If the probe absorbs too much, it will quickly overheat.

Another challenge is unity. Necessary to start space probes is a matrix with thousands or millions of small lasers, the size of a small city. 36 research facilities and companies will now devote a year to studying the possible technologies for these three critical areas on behalf of Worden. Researchers therefore want to develop the best proposals in prototypes. "In about five years, we want to know if a Starshot system can be built," Worden said. So the $ 100 million provided by Yuri Milner will be sold out.


If the teams master the technological requirements, Worden wants to build a first space-capable system with a gigawatt of laser energy. This could send Minisonden to Mars within three days, to the Kuiper belt around Pluto in a few months. It is estimated at around one billion dollars Breakthrough Starshot – less than for the rotating Marsrover Curiosity robot, which has been exploring the red planet since 2012. If the sum were available after the development phase, 2030 could be the system for missions in our solar system. It would take another 10 or 15 years to build the 100 times stronger, and probably at least 10 times more expensive, system of interstellar missions, like a flight to Earth-like Proxima Centauri b.

Brakes, the probes weren't. The technicians should therefore succeed further: for example, to stabilize the cameras in order to provide usable recordings despite the rapid overflight. Furthermore, the transfer of data to the earth is light years away. This could only create a mini laser with a probe. Still the precision, with Pete Worden counting on the crowd: "Many probes will hardly be more expensive than some, and some will make a relatively close overflight." What else speaks for a great season: different probes will not survive the journey – or simply distracted. This may already be enough for a speck of dust.

Read more about Focus Space in the May issue of Technology Review (now available in well-stocked newsstands and in the heise store).


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