Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Disco balls could be the key to interstellar travel: Researchers say spherical mirrored craft travelling at a fifth the speed of light could visit nearby star systems to look for life.

  • Most projects have focused on light 'sails' to travel the vast distances
  • Researchers say laserrs from Earth could power a spherical craft
  • Hope to visit Alpha Centauri a star system 25 trillion miles from Earth 
  • Tiny nanocraft will fly on sails pushed by beams of light 
  • Mission could reach Alpha Centauri within about 20 years of its launch 

Disco balls could be the unlikely key to interstellar travel, researchers have found.
Most projects, including billionaire Yuri Milner's Breakthrough Starshot project with Stephen Hawking and Mark Zuckerberg, have focused on light 'sails' to travel the vast distances.
However, now researchers say a sphere could be far more effective.

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The interstellar disco ball, would have a probe hidden in the centre, according to the Harvard research. When a laser beam hit the thin, mirror-like surface, the light would bounce off and push the probe along.
The interstellar disco ball, would have a probe hidden in the centre, according to the Harvard research. When a laser beam hit the thin, mirror-like surface, the light would bounce off and push the probe along.

HOW IT WOULD WORK 

The 'spaceball' would look a lot like an interstellar disco ball, with the probe hidden in the centre. 
When a laser beam hit the thin, mirror-like surface, the light would bounce off and push the probe along.
The beam used would be weakest at its centre and strongest at its outer edges. 
That way, whenever the probe moved slightly off track, the increase in laser strength would stabilise its motion.
The ambitious plan would accelerate tiny probes through space at a fifth of the speed of light.
This would allow an interstellar probe to reach our closest neighbouring star system in just 20 years, sending back pictures of anything interesting once it arrived.
One technique is to push the spacecraft with high-powered lasers shot from Earth - and this would work best with a spherical craft.
'I looked at the proposed laser-propelled sails and found that none of them would be very stable,' Zachary Manchester at Harvard University, a member of the advisory committee behind the Breakthrough project, told New Scientist.
'But I found that a spherical sail would be, and it's very elegant.'
The 'spaceball' would look a lot like an interstellar disco ball, with the probe hidden in the centre. 
When a laser beam hit the thin, mirror-like surface, the light would bounce off and push the probe along.




The beam used would be weakest at its centre and strongest at its outer edges. 
That way, whenever the probe moved slightly off track, the increase in laser strength would stabilise its motion.
 'The stability of a light sail riding on a laser beam is analyzed both analytically and numerically,' the researchers wrote in their paper, published on arXiv.
'Conical sails on Gaussian beams, which have been studied in the past, are shown to be unstable in general. 
'A new architecture for a passively stable sail and beam configuration is proposed.
'The novel spherical shell sail design is capable of 'beam riding' without the need for active feedback control.'
The team also produced Full three-dimensional ray-tracing simulations are performed to verify our analytical results.


Stephen Hawking (left), Yuri Milner (center) and Mark Zuckerberg (right) have teamed up to launch a $100 million hunt for alien life. The project, dubbed 'Breakthrough Starshot', was announced in New York today

However, they admit there are still some hurdles.   
'It'll cost lots of money and require a lot of research, but I think it will eventually be possible,' said Manchester.
Earlier this year it was revealed Stephen Hawking has teamed up with Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and Mark Zuckerberg to launch the most ambitious alien-hunting mission in history.
The $100m project, called Breakthrough Starshot, will rely on tiny so-called 'nanocraft' flying on sails pushed by beams of light through the universe.
They will travel to the Alpha Centauri star system 25 trillion miles (4.37 light years) away on a twenty year mission to look for alien life.

The project, dubbed Breakthrough Starshot, will rely on tiny so-called 'nanocraft' flying on sails, similar to the one illustrated, pushed by beams of light. Each of these tiny craft will carry cameras and a built in GPS
The project, dubbed Breakthrough Starshot, will rely on tiny so-called 'nanocraft' flying on sails, similar to the one illustrated, pushed by beams of light. Each of these tiny craft will carry cameras and a built in GPS

WHAT IS ALPHA CENTURI?

The Alpha Centauri star system is 25 trillion miles (4.37 light years) away. 
With today's fastest spacecraft, it would take about 30,000 years to get there.
Breakthrough Starshot aims to establish whether a gram-scale nanocraft, on a sail pushed by a light beam, can fly over a thousand times faster. 
Astronomers estimate that there is a reasonable chance of an Earth-like planet existing in the 'habitable zones' of Alpha Centauri's three-star system. 
'For the first time in human history, we can do more than look at the stars, we can reach them,' said Yuri Milner, founder of the Breakthrough Initiatives. 
Each of these 'interstellar sailboats' is expected to carry cameras and a built in GPS to search deep space for habitable planets. 
'55 years ago today, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. 
'Today, we are preparing for the next great leap.' 
'Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever,' commented Stephen Hawking, 'Sooner or later, we must look to the stars. 
'Breakthrough Starshot is a very exciting first step on that journey.
'With light beams, light sails and the lightest spacecraft ever built we can launch a mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation,' said Hawking. 
The $100 million research and engineering program will seek proof of concept for using light beam to propel super lightweight nanocraft to 20 per cent of light speed.
A possible fly-by mission could reach Alpha Centauri within about 20 years of its launch, Milner said, and also revealed Mark Zuckerberg is joining the project's board.
These craft are designed to take images of planets and other scientific data in our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, just over 20 years after their launch.
Astronomers estimate that there is a reasonable chance of an Earth-like planet existing in the 'habitable zones' of Alpha Centaur's three-star system.



The Alpha Centauri star system is 25 trillion miles (4.37 light years) away (right). With today's fastest spacecraft, it would take about 30,000 years to get there. Breakthrough Starshot aims to establish whether a gram-scale nanocraft, on a sail pushed by a light beam, can fly over a thousand times faster (left)

'Today we commit to this next great leap into this cosmos, because we are human and our nature is to fly.'
The program will be led by Pete Worden, the former director of Nasa Ames Research Center, and advised by a committee of world-class scientists and engineers.
'We take inspiration from Vostok, Voyager, Apollo and the other great missions,' said Worden.
'It's time to open the era of interstellar flight, but we need to keep our feet on the ground to achieve this.'

WHO IS YURI MILNER? 

A onetime physics PhD student in Moscow who dropped out to move to the United States in 1990, Milner is one of a handful of technology tycoons devoting time and money to space exploration.
Yuri Milner was born into a Jewish family on 11 November 1961 in Moscow and studied theoretical physics at Moscow State University, graduating in 1985.
He began his business career selling illegal DOS computers in the Soviet Union. When the national government collapsed enrolled at Wharton School of Business to earn an MBA.
He then went on to work for the World Bank in Washington, D.C., as a Russian banking specialist tasked with the development of the private sector banking.
He rose up in the banking world, and from 1997 to 2000, Milner was Director General of the investment fund New Trinity Investments
But his real success came when he founded investment firms Digital Sky Technologies (DST) - now called Mail.ru Group - and DST Global.
DST Global has invested in a number of major technology firms including Facebook, Spotify, Twitter and Alibaba.

An aerial view of Yuri Milner's mansion. Milner currently works as an investor and has earned his fortune from backing successful technology firms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram
An aerial view of Yuri Milner's mansion. Milner currently works as an investor and has earned his fortune from backing successful technology firms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The Russian space enthusiast says he has replaced all the artwork in his $65 million mansion in San Francisco with 50 flat screen TVs.

In 2012, Milner established The Breakthrough Prize - a set of international awards recognize three fields of endeavour: Fundamental Physics, Life Sciences and Mathematics.
Laureates receive $3 million each in prize money, making the Breakthrough Prizes the largest scientific awards in the world.
Earlier this year, he teamed up with Stephen Hawking in the search for alien life as part of the 'Breakthrough Initiatives.'
The $100 million quest will see telescopes scour one million of the closest stars to Earth for faint signals thrown out into space by intelligent life beyond our own world.
As part of his long-term vision, Milner believes that the internet will develop into a 'global brain' that will work as a type of nervous system for Earth.
The Alpha Centauri star system is 25 trillion miles (4.37 light years) away. 
With today's fastest spacecraft, it would take about 30,000 years to get there.
Breakthrough Starshot aims to establish whether a gram-scale nanocraft, on a sail pushed by a light beam, can fly over a thousand times faster.
It brings the Silicon Valley approach to space travel, capitalising on exponential advances in certain areas of technology since the beginning of the 21st century.
Nanocrafts are gram-scale robotic spacecrafts comprising two main parts: A Starchip and Lightchip.

BREAKTHROUGH STARSHOT

The project involves deploying thousands of tiny spacecraft to travel to our nearest star system and send back pictures.
If successful, scientists could determine if Alpha Centauri, a star system about 25 trillion miles away, contains an Earth-like planet.
The catch: It could take years to develop the project, dubbed Breakthrough Starshot, and there is no guarantee it will work. 
The small light-propelled vehicles will carry equipment like cameras and communication equipment. 
Scientists hope the vehicles, known as nanocraft, will eventually fly at 20 per cent of the speed of lightt.
'The thing would look like the chip from your cell phone with this very thin gauzy light sail,' said Nasa's Pete Worden
'It would be something like 10, 12 feet across.'
He envisions sending a larger conventional spacecraft containing thousands of nanocraft into orbit, and then launching the nanocraft.
If they reach the star system and succeed in taking photographs, it would take about another four years to transmit them back.
When in orbit, the tiny craft would unfold thin sails and then be propelled by powerful laser beams from Earth
When in orbit, the tiny craft would unfold thin sails and then be propelled by powerful laser beams from Earth

'Starchip is about the size of a postage stamp, although a little bit thicker. It can be massed produced at the cost of an iPhone,' said Milner. 
The light beamer is modular and scalable. 
Once it is assembled and the technology matures, the cost of each launch is expected to fall to a few hundred thousand dollars.
The research and engineering phase is expected to last a number of years. 

'The thing would look like the chip from your cell phone with this very thin gauzy light sail,' said Nasa's Pete Worden. 'It would be something like 10, 12 feet across'. Pictured on the left is Yuri Milner holding a prototype chip and on the right is an aritst's impression of what the 'interstellar sailboat' would look like
'The thing would look like the chip from your cell phone with this very thin gauzy light sail,' said Nasa's Pete Worden. 'It would be something like 10, 12 feet across'. Pictured on the left is Yuri Milner holding a prototype chip and on the right is an aritst's impression of what the 'interstellar sailboat' would look like

'Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever,' commented Stephen Hawking, 'Sooner or later, we must look to the stars. 'Breakthrough Starshot is a very exciting first step on that journey'
'Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever,' commented Stephen Hawking, 'Sooner or later, we must look to the stars. 'Breakthrough Starshot is a very exciting first step on that journey'

A still image taken from a video rendering shows phased arrays of lasers which could be used on Breakthrough Starshot, a $100 million research and engineering program aiming to demonstrate proof of concept for light-propelled spacecrafts
A still image taken from a video rendering shows phased arrays of lasers which could be used on Breakthrough Starshot, a $100 million research and engineering program aiming to demonstrate proof of concept for light-propelled spacecrafts

'55 years ago today, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space,' said Yuri Milner, who was named after the pioneering astronaut (shown on screen). 'Today, we are preparing for the next great leap'
'55 years ago today, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space,' said Yuri Milner, who was named after the pioneering astronaut (shown on screen). 'Today, we are preparing for the next great leap'

Breakthrough Starshot is likely to target Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to Earth, where an an Earth-like planet may exist within its 'habitable zone.' It could also help confirm the existence of Planet Nine (illustrated)
Breakthrough Starshot is likely to target Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to Earth, where an an Earth-like planet may exist within its 'habitable zone.' It could also help confirm the existence of Planet Nine (illustrated)

THE CHALLENGES 

The idea has precedents with mixed results.
Two years ago, Cornell University's KickSat fizzled after the craft carrrying 104 micro-satellites into space failed to release them. 
The plan was to let the tiny satellites orbit and collect data for a few weeks.
Nasa's Peter Worden acknowledges challenges, including the nanocraft surviving impact on launch.
They would then endure 20 years of travel through the punishing environment of interstellar space, with obstacles such as dust collisions.
'The problems remaining to be solved - any one of them are showstoppers,' Worden said.
Governments likely would not take on the research due to its speculative nature, he said, yet the technology is promising enough to merit pursuing.
Following that, development of the ultimate mission to Alpha Centauri would require a budget comparable to the largest current scientific experiments.
However, the key elements of the proposed system design are based on technology either already available or likely to be attainable in the near future under reasonable assumptions.
The proposed light propulsion system is on a scale significantly exceeding any currently operational analog.
The very nature of the project calls for global co-operation and support.
Clearance for launches would be required from all the appropriate government and international organizations.
As the technology required for interstellar travel matures, a number of additional opportunities will emerge, including the following:
Astronomers estimate that there is a reasonable chance of an Earth-like planet existing in the 'habitable zones' of Alpha Centauri's three-star system. 
A number of scientific instruments, ground-based and space-based, are being developed and enhanced, which will soon identify and characterize planets around nearby stars.
A separate Breakthrough Initiative will support some of these projects. 
The Breakthrough Starshot initiative will establish a research grant program, and will make available other funding to support relevant scientific and engineering research and development. 
The idea for a spacecraft to be equipped with a solar sail to use the solar wind for propulsion was described by the late astrophysicist Carl Sagan four decades ago.
It was theorised that solar sails could accelerate spacecraft far beyond the speeds of traditional fuels, to make interplanetary - and interstellar - travel more feasible.

12:  Scientist and investor Yuri Milner holds up a prototype of the "Star Chip", a small robotic space craft that will enable intersteller travel as he poses with Professor Stephen Hawking and Professor Freeman Dyson
12: Scientist and investor Yuri Milner holds up a prototype of the 'Star Chip', a small robotic space craft that will enable intersteller travel as he poses with Professor Stephen Hawking and Professor Freeman Dyson

The team envisions sending a larger conventional spacecraft containing thousands of nanocraft into orbit, and then launching the nanocraft
The team envisions sending a larger conventional spacecraft containing thousands of nanocraft into orbit, and then launching the nanocraft

LightSail2 spacecraft propelled by sunlight undergoes tests

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'For the first time in human history, we can do more than look at the stars, we can reach them,' said Yuri Milner (left), founder of the Breakthrough Initiatives. 'Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever,' added Stephen Hawking (right), 'Sooner or later, we must look to the stars'
'For the first time in human history, we can do more than look at the stars, we can reach them,' said Yuri Milner (left), founder of the Breakthrough Initiatives. 'Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever,' added Stephen Hawking (right), 'Sooner or later, we must look to the stars'

A BRIEF HISTORY OF SOLAR SAILS 

LightSail is not the first spacecraft to test this innovative form of propulsion.
Japan's Ikaros probe successfully 'sailed' on its way to Venus in 2010.
Ikaros measured 2,000 square ft (185 square metres) in size.
Nasa also tested solar sails with its NanoSail-D2 satellite in January 2011, with a sail expanding to 110sq ft (10 square metres).
The spacecraft burned up in Earth's atmosphere as planned in November 2011. 
The most recent version of this technology has four triangular sails, made of mylar, that create a rectangular-shaped surface. 
It can send a cubesat to an orbital altitude of 500 miles (800 km), before sails deploy creating a total surface area of 32 square metres.
The Planetary Society recently released a video showing a sail deployment test at Ecliptic Enterprises Corporation in Pasadena.
LightSail 1 was launched on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on 20 May from Cape Canaveral in Florida.
At its core is a tiny craft made up of three 'CubeSats', which are essentially tiny spacecraft that can be launched relatively cheaply.
In total, the core of the vehicle weighs 22lbs (10kg) and is just 11.8-inches (30cm) high and 3.9-inches (10cm) wide - about the size of a loaf of bread. 
At the bottom of the spacecraft on each of its four sides, a huge solar sail has been 'folded up'.
This sail, measuring 345 square ft (32 square metres) in size, is made of an extremely reflective material called Mylar.

The idea for a spacecraft to be equipped with a solar sail to use the solar wind for propulsion was described by the late astrophysicist Carl Sagan four decades ago. Although not confirmed, the project is likely to use technology that developed by The Planetaru Society's LightSail (pictured)
The idea for a spacecraft to be equipped with a solar sail to use the solar wind for propulsion was described by the late astrophysicist Carl Sagan four decades ago. Although not confirmed, the project is likely to use technology that developed by The Planetaru Society's LightSail (pictured)

It is just 4.5 microns thick - about a quarter of the thickness of a bin bag.
If it is unfurled, photons from the sun will strike the sail and push it forwards, similar to how a sail on Earth catches the wind.
The push is extremely minimal - less than holding a sheet of paper in your hand - but it is theorised that, over time, this push could build up enough to reach high speeds. 
The latest project is part of Milner's decade-long search for extraterrestrial intelligence , which he set up last year, under the banner Breakthrough Initiatives.
Milner, who is worth $2.9 billion, has collaborated with Hawking before.
In July 2015, the two revealed a $100 million plan, called 'Breakthrough Listen', to look for alien life.
Worden said today that in the near future, Breakthrough Listen, will observe all stars within 25 light years from Earth.  
'In the last five years, we have discovered that planets in the habitable zone of stars are common,' Breakthrough Initiatives' the website states.
'Based on the numbers discovered so far, there are estimated to be billions more in our galaxy alone.
'And there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the visible Universe.
'Yet we are still in the dark about life. Are we really alone? Or are there others out there?
'It's one of the biggest questions. And only science can answer it.'

From left to right; Freeman Dyson, Professor, Princeton Institute for Advanced Study; Ann Druyan,  CEO of Cosmos Studios; Avi Loeb,  Professor of Science at Harvard University; Mae Jamison, Nasa Astronaut; and Peter Worden, Chairman, Breaktrough Prize Foundation
From left to right; Freeman Dyson, Professor, Princeton Institute for Advanced Study; Ann Druyan, CEO of Cosmos Studios; Avi Loeb, Professor of Science at Harvard University; Mae Jamison, Nasa Astronaut; and Peter Worden, Chairman, Breaktrough Prize Foundation
Journey from Earth to the Alpha Centauri system...

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