The need for new propulsion technologies is imperative for traveling to celestial objects in a  lifetime. The closest star system to Earth is Alpha Centauri 4.37 light years away. It would take our current fasted propulsion 30,000 years to get there. New research funded by Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner and with the blessing of Stephen Hawking, Breakthrough Starshot aims to send probes to Alpha Centauri in a generation.

Yuri Milner, Russian Billionaire, is placing $100 Million into research to complete the Starshot within our generation. The Starshot project goal is to create the technology to shoot light sails in space with a 100-gigawatt laser array based on the ground. The lasers would be shot in a few minute pulses to a several atom-thin meter-wide light sail. In a discrete manner, shooting these light sails with the high energy pulses will get the light sail, full of sensors, to 20% the speed of light, about 37,300 miles per hour.

Currently the biggest obstacle is cost. The current present-day price for large-scale power, building, and operation costs is estimated at $10 per watt. At 100-gigawatt array would cost $1 Trillion dollars but with research the cost could go down by as much as a factor of 10, according to Philip Lubin, lead scientist on the project and a physicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The goal will be for a few hundred thousand dollars a shot, one could send a nanoprobe near Mars in just a few hours, or Pluto in a few days but it will take 20 years to get to Alpha Centauri.

The beauty of this project is the purpose, this is all just for collecting data and pursing curiosity.

Ask your students:

  1. What technologies in battery and power distribution would there need to be in order to get the cost of laser technology down?
  2. Calculate the time it takes to travel to other celestial objects knowing the speeds of which theses nano-probes can travel, how much faster does a 200 gigawatt laser make a probe travel?