Human Beings Plan to Invade Alpha Centauri with a Fleet of 1000 Robots
By Eloise Hamann
Shining brightly in this Hubble image is our closest stellar neighbour: Proxima Centauri. Proxima Centauri lies in the constellation of Centaurus (The Centaur), just over four light-years from Earth. Although it looks bright through the eye of Hubble, as you might expect from the nearest star to the Solar System, Proxima Centauri is not visible to the naked eye. Its average luminosity is very low, and it is quite small compared to other stars, at only about an eighth of the mass of the Sun. However, on occasion, its brightness increases. Proxima is what is known as a “flare star”, meaning that convection processes within the star’s body make it prone to random and dramatic changes in brightness. The convection processes not only trigger brilliant bursts of starlight but, combined with other factors, mean that Proxima Centauri is in for a very long life. Astronomers predict that this star will remain middle-aged — or a “main sequence” star in astronomical terms — for another four trillion years, some 300 times the age of the current Universe. These observations were taken using Hubble’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2). Proxima Centauri is actually part of a triple star system — its two companions, Alpha Centauri A and B, lie out of frame. Although by cosmic standards it is a close neighbour, Proxima Centauri remains a point-like object even using Hubble’s eagle-eyed vision, hinting at the vast scale of the Universe around us.
The invasion will not be hostile. The smart phone sized robots only plan to look around and beam pictures back to earth. It will not take the tens of thousands of years, which an ordinary space probe would take. Thanks to assistance from well-focused laser beams, the trip will last less than a single generation of human life.
The small probes will be attached to sails, which will be boosted by laser beams emanating from earth. While the design of the mini-probes is not finalized, a simulation by Stephen Hawking, one of the directors, and Yuri Milner, Russian philanthropist and Internet Entrepreneur seeking funds for the 5-10 billion project, displays the tiny probes at the center of a square sail which looks like an X in a Tic-Tac-Toe square. It is possible to fit the entire probe with computers, cameras and electrical power, in a package with a mass of 1/30th of an ounce.
To the question of what makes human beings unique, Dr. Hawking states, “I believe that what makes us unique is transcending our limits.”
Space scientists have long sought means to cross the void more quickly. As far back as 1962, shortly after lasers were invented, Robert Forward, a physicist and science fiction author, suggested they could be used to push sails in space.
Another advantage of the plan is the number of robots. Many of our little spies can bite the space dust without harm to the others beaming information to earth.
As the closest star system to our solar system, Alpha Centauri is a favorite setting for Science Fiction. In particular: Startrek, Lost in Space, and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
The project will be directed by Pete Worden, a former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center. He has a prominent cast of advisers, including the Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb who as chair advisor believes the laser is the most intimidating and expensive of the challenges. It would have to generate 100 gigawatts of power for the two minutes needed to accelerate the butterfly probes to a fifth of the speed of light—about as much energy as it takes to lift off a space shuttle.
To achieve that energy would require an array about a mile across combining thousands of lasers firing in perfect unison.
Dr. Loeb once said “Nature teaches us that its imagination is better than ours.” I think Project Breakthrough Starshot challenges his claim.
By Eloise Hamann
Adapted from Reaching for the Stars, Across 4.37 Light-Years by Dennis Overbye, NYTimes 4/12/16