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More Interstellar Travel

This week, researchers announced that they have found seven rocky planets around another sun that may be capable of having water – three of which are in the habitable zone of the solar system. The star, called TRAPPIST-1, is about 39 light years away.

pia21422_-_trappist-1_planet_lineup_figure_1
From NASA/JPL.

This discovery raises the issue, once again, of interstellar travel.  A while ago, I wrote a post that discusses how long it would take to get to our nearest neighbor star using modern technologies. Long story short: it would take a many thousands of years.

Since then, articles have been published that discuss getting to another sun using lasers. In the last post, I talked about using lasers to get to Mars. This time, I will talk about the idea of using lasers to get to another star.

The idea of using light to accelerate things has been discussed for a long time. Basically, light bouncing off of a reflective surface will impart some pressure on that surface.  There are two extremely interesting things about using light to accelerate things: (1) if it is sunlight, it is free, which is the cheapest type of energy; and (2) if it is not sunlight, the energy can be generated somewhere besides on the spacecraft (like on the Earth or the Moon), which means that the spacecraft can be much smaller and won’t need huge engines with gigantic fuel tanks. The big disadvantage of using light to accelerate things is that the efficiency is absolutely horrible, with a huge amount of the energy being completely wasted.

The general idea with using lasers for interstellar travel is exactly the same as using lasers for getting to Mars: bounce a laser off the spacecraft, or a gigantic sail, and accelerate it up to an extremely large speed, moving in the right direction. For a trip to Mars, you could imagine having a similar laser system on Mars, so the spacecraft could be slowed down. On an interplanetary trip, the spacecraft would simply (quickly) pass through the solar system of the other star.

So, why don’t we do this now? Well, there are a bunch of reasons:

  1. We don’t have lasers that are large enough and can operate for long enough to accelerate something (relatively large) up to close to the speed of light. The article above talks about using a laser array that is in orbit that would be about 6 miles across.  That is a pretty big array of lasers.  Basically, you would need a ton of lasers that would all fire for a very short amount of time, but combined, the array would provide a constant stream of energy that would rapidly accelerate the spacecraft.
  2. The article talks about accelerating the spacecraft up to speeds of 1/3 of the speed of light in 10 minutes. That would be an acceleration that is 17,000 times gravity. We don’t build spacecraft that can experience that type of acceleration – even 20-30 times gravity is pretty horrible for a spacecraft!
  3. Even with the huge laser array, the spacecraft that is getting the energy would have to be super tiny.  The article talks about a spacecraft that is something like 1 inch in size.  That is pretty small! Considering that the smallest satellites in orbit around the Earth are CubeSats, which are about 4 inches cubed (and that is REALLY hard!), it is unlikely that we will launch anything even CubeSat size on an interstellar trip.
  4. Since the spacecraft are so small, it is hard to imagine how we would get signals from it. Let’s take the New Horizons mission to Pluto as an example. New Horizons has a dish that has a diameter of 2.1 meters. At Pluto, it had a bandwidth of 4.5 kilo-Bytes/sec. Compared to a standard cable modem, this is about 1000 times slower. Ok, New Horizons is not going to stream Netflix – that is clear.  But, it has taken the mission over six months to stream all of the images that they took in their flyby of Pluto. That is a very slow bandwidth! Bandwidth falls off as the square of the distance between objects.  So, if we launched New Horizons to a solar system 39 light years away (which is about 62,500 times further away), the bandwidth would be 0.0000012 Bytes/second. Yikes!  That is slow!  If the spacecraft were really only an inch in size, then the antenna could only be about that big, which means that the bandwidth would decrease by a factor of 10,000. That is really not good.  So, this is the largest issues with this idea.  In some ways, it is like trying to use your cell phone to call someone on Earth from Pluto. “Can you hear me now?” “Uh. No.”

    new_horizons_transparent
    The New Horizons spacecraft.  The antenna is about 2 meters across. The black thing to the right of the antenna is the power source for the spacecraft.  It is a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG), which is just cool to say.
  5. Since the spacecraft would quickly move away from our own sun, it would not have a power source for the entire trip to the other solar system. Which is bad for two reasons: we wouldn’t be able to communicate with it, since it takes energy to send signals, and it would quickly cool down to the background temperature of the universe, which is -269°C. Not many electronic components will survive those temperatures! So, we would HAVE to have a power source that would last the trip, just to heat up the system. That would be big.
  6. It would take at least 40 years as a bare minimum to get there, and would pass through the system in about 10 minutes. On the first front, you would have to count on the scientific community to keep its eye on the prize for the 40+ years of the trip. And, it should be noted that 40 years is the absolute minimum, assuming that we can accelerate it up to almost the speed of light. If we can get it up to 1/3 of the speed of light, it would take 120 years. That is a fair bit of time.  Next, when it arrives and passes through the system, it will need to have an extremely fast camera, since it will be passing by the planets at >500,000,000 MPH. That is a good camera.  Not a cell phone camera.

Ok, I think that you get the point.  This is a really, really hard mission. We are not really close to having interstellar travel. It is great to think about these things, but they really are science fiction at this point.

But, if we just …..

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