from the say-hi-to-Vir-Cotto-for-me dept.
In 2069, if all goes according to plan, NASA could launch a spacecraft bound to escape our solar system and visit our next-door neighbors in space, the three-star Alpha Centauri system, according to a mission concept presented last week at the annual conference of the American Geophysical Union and reported by New Scientist. The mission, which is pegged to the 100th anniversary of the moon landing, would also involve traveling at one-tenth the speed of light.
Last year, Representative John Culberson called for NASA to launch a 2069 mission to Alpha Centauri, but it was never included in any bill.
Meanwhile, researchers have analyzed spectrographic data for the Alpha Centauri system and found that small, rocky exoplanets are almost certainly undiscovered due to current detection limits:
The researchers set up a grid system for the Alpha Centauri system and asked, based on the spectrographic analysis, "If there was a small, rocky planet in the habitable zone, would we have been able to detect it?" Often, the answer came back: "No."
Zhao, the study's first author, determined that for Alpha Centauri A, there might still be orbiting planets that are smaller than 50 Earth masses. For Alpha Centauri B there might be orbiting planets than are smaller than 8 Earth masses; for Proxima Centauri, there might be orbiting planets that are less than one-half of Earth's mass.
In addition, the study eliminated the possibility of a number of larger planets. Zhao said this takes away the possibility of Jupiter-sized planets causing asteroids that might hit or change the orbits of smaller, Earth-like planets.
(For comparison, Saturn is ~95 Earth masses, Neptune is ~17, Uranus is ~14.5, and Mars is ~0.1.)
Researchers have written about some of the challenges involved in building a light sail suitable for Breakthrough Starshot, a project that would accelerate a gram-scale "chipcraft" using lasers so that it could travel interstellar distances in just decades:
A team of researchers at the California Institute of Technology has taken a hard look at the challenges facing efforts to carry out the Breakthrough Starshot project. In their Perspective piece published in the journal Nature Materials, the researchers outline the obstacles still facing project engineers and possible solutions.
The light sail would need to be made of a lightweight but reflective material able to withstand being bombarded by gigawatts of photons without melting. Graphene doesn't qualify. Many of the materials the researchers evaluated have only been studied in their bulk forms, rather than thin films, which can have different properties.
The Starshot Breakthrough Initiative established in 2016 sets an audacious goal of sending a spacecraft beyond our Solar System to a neighbouring star within the next half-century. Its vision for an ultralight spacecraft that can be accelerated by laser radiation pressure from an Earth-based source to ~20% of the speed of light demands the use of materials with extreme properties. Here we examine stringent criteria for the lightsail design and discuss fundamental materials challenges. We predict that major research advances in photonic design and materials science will enable us to define the pathways needed to realize laser-driven lightsails.
Also at Ars Technica.