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Breakthrough Starshot
It's gaining attention in social media.

Yuri Milner. Stephen Hawking.

Interstellar nanocraft. Lightsails. 0.2 c.

Alpha Centauri within a generation.

Quote:“Breakthrough Starshot,” the program Milner is backing, intends to squeeze all the key components of a robotic probe—cameras, sensors, maneuvering thrusters and communications equipment—into tiny gram-scale “nanocraft.”

Deployed by the thousands from a mothership launched into Earth orbit, each nanocraft would unfurl a sail and catch a laser pulse to accelerate to 20 percent the speed of light—some 60,000 kilometers per second. Using a sophisticated adaptive-optics system of deformable mirrors to keep each pulse coherent and sharp against the blurring effects of the atmosphere, the laser array would boost perhaps one orbiting nanocraft per day.

[Image: starshot-starchip-alpha-centauri-160412b...size=600:*]

Wikipedia doesn't have much on it just yet.
Quote:Many Starchips would be launched at a time, propelled by a 100-gigawatt laser blast from a ground-based light-beamer array. This is about the same amount of energy required to launch a space shuttle. The probes would be accelerated to 20 percent of the speed of light in about two minutes (an acceleration of 60,000 times that of the Earth's gravity). This velocity would get the probe past the orbit of Pluto in three days and to the nearest star in 20 years. - See more at:

Apparently there will be more news to come in an event soon.
"A fully functional space probe that can be held with two fingers and mass produced at the cost of an iPhone."
(04-13-2016, 10:28 AM)PortalHunter Wrote: Apparently there will be more news to come in an event soon.

The Breakthrough Discuss event, yesterday and the day before:

Paul Gilster's Centauri Dreams website will have news and reports from Breakthrough Discuss:
This sort of tech could lead to a sailbeam propulsion system, and eventually fully-fledged boostbeams. Some sort of beamed propulsion may be the only way we can ever reach the stars, although the exact details may vary considerably from our current concepts.
InterestingSmile There are a number of challenges to make this work, which they freely admit, but most of them seem reasonably doable with enough time and money thrown at the research. The biggest challenges might be the survival of the probes en route, getting governments to agree to the laser array, and making the starchips capable of sending back whatever they find.

Extending this into OA, we have passing mention of 'survey swarms' and 'terraformer swarms' that are apparently some kind of swarm based, automated tools that explore or terraform planets. They presumably consist of a great number of rather small units, although are probably larger and faster than what is described here in the main. Still, such tiny probes (or something close to them) might be deployed from larger (but still quite small) probes for a variety of applications.

There is another potential problem, not so far discussed. People might look askance at someone who wants to start building a 100GW laser array, methinks.

A similar problem cropped up in the obscure novel "Farside Cannon"; although the intended use in that case was asteroid deflection.

It's yet another example of the truism that powerful tools make powerful weapons. Also true the other way around; use of nuclear explosions in engineering projects has been seriously discussed, for example.
Actually, I believe the issue you raise falls under what they refer to as 'policy issues' (possibly with just a dash of understatement). Smile

That said, such an array could damage/destroy satellites and probably the space station (and aircraft if they were so foolish as to pass overhead), but would be useless against ground based targets (and space based potential targets could be avoided with a mix of proper scheduling of launches and proper orbital parameters so that they don't pass over the array). Given that this system seems to be predicated on being used before humans have any significantly greater presence in space than we do now, there might be fewer of these issues (in principle) than we might think at first blush.

Spacecraft make good kinetic missiles, of course, as do aircraft; that doesn't mean we should abandon their use.

Note that the Soviets actually did manage to use nuclear explosions for peaceful purposes on a small number of occasions, including stopping a gas well blow-out or two.

The US program investigated similar possibilities, but was never put into commercial or practical use.
Would these things have the oomph to send a signal back home, so we know what they've found?
That is the clever part. They would (in theory) be able to work together to send coordinated messages back to us, which would be received by the same phased-array emitters that provided the thrust to send them there, only working in reverse. Luke Campbell has pointed out the sort of remarkable things a phased-array emitter-detector system could achieve; this is one of them.

Note, however that none of this technology is available today, and will need several decades of development to make it suitable for interstellar missions. And the same technology that could receive faint messages from a swarm of tiny sails four light-years away would also make a bloody good telescope, probably producing much better information by directly imaging the star (and planets) than by receiving data from a swarm of tinfoil spacecraft cannoning through the system at a significant fraction of light speed.

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