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Plotting the Destinations of 4 Interstellar Probes
Image: Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg/Sky & Telescope/International Astronomical Union

This past October, NASA announced that after 36 years of flight, Voyager 1 had finally crossed into the interstellar medium that fills the space between the stars. Although it is the first probe to do so, Voyager 1 is not alone in its one-way mission out of the solar system: Four other probes are following it. The destinations of Voyager 1 and 2 and Pioneer 10 and 11 are plotted below. The ultimate destination of the fifth probe—the New Horizons mission to Pluto—is still unknown (its trajectory will be adjusted during its mission in hopes of sending it past another Kuiper Belt object). Although these probes will be dead metal when they reach the stars, all but New Horizons have messages on board designed to be decoded by aliens—just in case.

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Economics Drives Ray-Gun Resurgence

Laser weapons, cheaper by the shot, should work well against drones and cruise missiles

4 min read
In an artist’s rendering, a truck is shown with five sets of wheels—two sets for the cab, the rest for the trailer—and a box on the top of the trailer, from which a red ray is projected on an angle, upward, ending in the silhouette of an airplane, which is being destroyed

Lockheed Martin's laser packs up to 300 kilowatts—enough to fry a drone or a plane.

Lockheed Martin

The technical challenge of missile defense has been compared with that of hitting a bullet with a bullet. Then there is the still tougher economic challenge of using an expensive interceptor to kill a cheaper target—like hitting a lead bullet with a golden one.

Maybe trouble and money could be saved by shooting down such targets with a laser. Once the system was designed, built, and paid for, the cost per shot would be low. Such considerations led planners at the Pentagon to seek a solution from Lockheed Martin, which has just delivered a 300-kilowatt laser to the U.S. Army. The new weapon combines the output of a large bundle of fiber lasers of varying frequencies to form a single beam of white light. This laser has been undergoing tests in the lab, and it should see its first field trials sometime in 2023. General Atomics, a military contractor in San Diego, is also developing a laser of this power for the Army based on what’s known as the distributed-gain design, which has a single aperture.

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