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5 Hurdles to Reaching the Next Star System

Even if your spaceship is just a chip, getting to Alpha Centauri will be a real challenge

2 min read
Image: Breakthrough Prize Foundation
An artist’s conception of a laser-propelled chip-scale starship with a reflective sail.
Image: Breakthrough Prize Foundation

Light from our sun takes more than four years to reach ournearest neighbor, the Alpha Centauri star system. Tiny spacecraft, each integrated on a chip and accelerated by laser light, might be able to close the distance in a respectable 20—assuming at least some of them survive the radiation and dust collisions en route. This interstellar scheme, developed with NASA funding, got a big boost last year with the launch of the US $100 million, privately funded Breakthrough Starshot program. As you might expect, there are myriad technical challenges to overcome. Here are five that top the list for Philip Lubin, a physics professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who road-mapped the idea and continues to research it with NASA support.

  • Getting in Phase

    A kilometer-scale array of lasers could be used to create a spacecraft-pushing beam with many gigawatts of power, but the light has to come together very precisely in order to deliver that energy to the spacecraft. Designing an Earth-based array is an added complication because it must quickly adapt to atmospheric perturbations.

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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.

NASA

For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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