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Experts sceptical about Milner’s Breakthrough Starshot project

May 06, 14:34 UTC+3
Acording to the polled experts, the project could be implemented theoretically but is almost impossible to realize
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© AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

MOSCOW April 12. /TASS/. Businessman’s Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Starshot project task, which is to reach the furthest stars on very small space vehicles, could be implemented theoretically but is very complicated in practice, polled experts told TASS.

"In the turn of the XIX century, James Maxwell formulated equations describing magnetic fields and found out their ability to convey an impulse. Early in the XX century, Russian physicist Pyotr Lebedev empirically confirmed that the light (electromagnetic wave by nature) puts pressure on the surface. This effect forms the basis for the light or solar sails", said Nikolai Nerovny, Bauman Moscow State Technical University (the MSTU) postgraduate and engineer, developing a space vehicle with a solar sail in terms of the Parus-MSTU project.

Internet investor and philanthropist in the field of fundamental science Yuri Milner and physicist Stephen Hawking have declared the start of Breakthrough Starshot project aimed at the launch of a space vehicle to the stars with the speed of 160 million kilometers per hour.  The organizers believe the mission could be completed during the life of one generation. Breakthrough Starshot initiative is supposed to confirm that nano-vehicles accelerated by laser beams to the speed of 20% of the speed of light (300 000 km/sec) might be developed and used for travels to the stars. The mission would consist of a micro-robot StarChip and superlight solar sail triggered by a high power light beam.

Possible, but difficult

“In terms of physics, this project isn’t difficult at all, but it seems to be too complicated if we talk about engineering. Firstly, if this space vehicle accelerates to the 20% light speed in 10 minutes, as it is claimed, it will quickly go away from the laser focus. It is quite a serious problem. Secondly, if we affect a sail with a very powerful laser, an enormous gush of this energy will for certain be wasting not only on racing the sail but on its warming, because it is impossible to create a mirror with perfect reflection power. Even if 1% of laser energy is absorbed by the sail, it might cause overheat and deformation of the sail itself. Even more, such absorption could cause electronical breakdown. Mankind needs about 500 years so that we could deal with such difficulties. And it is an optimistic opinion. So I am quite skeptical about this project, but I could be wrong. It is necessary to consider its technical side,” explained the scientist.

Not in the near future

Igor Marinin, the main editor of the Cosmonautics News magazine agrees that it is a complicated project.

“It is impossible to realize this idea considering the modern level of technologies. If they plan to make it within 100 years, I probably could agree. But in the nearest future, it is absolutely impossible during the life of one person. Surely, the fact that Stephen Hawking is involved in this project amplifies his weight. I think either somebody has roped him in, or he has discovered some unknown physical laws. But the truth is that there's a strong presumption against it because the discovery of a physical law needs registering, so needs precedence. And it is impossible without discovering either new physical laws or absolutely incredible ways of transference. No physical object can be accelerated to such speed with a laser beam,” said Marinin.

"The hardest part is the space vehicle feedback," said Sergey Popov, the lead researcher at the Sternberg State Astronomical Institute. He considers that the project might not produce the target results. "It seems to me that it's a risky project and might not achieve the ultimate goal," said Popov. The scientist noted that, from his point of view, the most difficult part is the feedback.

The sum of $100 million that Milner has allocated for the development and creation of the space vehicle, from the point of view of the citizen looks huge, but if it's compared with the budget of NASA, it doesn't appear to be enormous. However, space agencies and other large investors,unlike private entrepreneurs, don't undertake such projects where the final result isn't guaranteed.

"On the other hand, this is an interesting project," said Popov, noting that chances of its success, though small, still exist.

Star system alpha Centauri is at a distance of more than 40 trillion kilometers (4,37 light years). The fastest existing spacecraft will take 30 000 years to reach it.

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