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Breakthrough Starshot Meetings

I’m at the Breakthrough Starshot meetings in San Francisco, with a full schedule indeed. As I did last time in Palo Alto, I won’t try to post daily because there just won’t be time, and in any case, I will need to go over my notes and consolidate my impressions. Even so, I plan to slip something interesting in here in the near future (keep an eye on Wednesday afternoon EDT), and will try to keep comment moderation active, though probably on a more infrequent basis than usual. Next week I’ll report in on what happened at the committee level at Breakthrough Starshot.


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  • ljk August 23, 2016, 9:16

    Gee, Paul, I wonder what could be happening on Wednesday – wink, wink ;^)


    Good luck with the meetings and looking forward to the information they will provide.

    Perhaps related to Breakthrough Starshot is this new article from The Space Review on the status of CubeSats:


    • Alex Tolley August 23, 2016, 13:21

      Perhaps related to Breakthrough Starshot is this new article from The Space Review on the status of CubeSats:


      The high failure rate could have been put in better context. The production costs are relatively low, and if the CubeSats can be replicated easily, the high failure rate is just the equivalent of an r reproduction strategy. With time, I’m sure the failure rates will decline as experience increases. The Planetary Society’s communication difficulties with their CubeSat solar sail was no doubt fixed with updated code. As the components become more modular and off-the-shelf, overall robustness should improve.

  • ljk August 23, 2016, 9:21

    How Starshot will get us to Alpha Centauri in 20 years

    by Colm Gorey

    August 16, 2016

    Travelling into the darkest depths of the universe could soon be as easy as flicking on a switch, or at least a switch for a giant laser system that will fire a spacecraft at 150m kmph [???] to Alpha Centauri.

    Back in April 2016, the philanthropic research group Breakthrough Initiatives announced it was putting millions of dollars into developing a spacecraft capable of reaching Alpha Centauri in the next 20 years. [Or maybe Proxima Centauri now.]

    This would be some claim given that, despite it being our nearest neighbouring star, it’s located more than four light years away.

    Full article here:


    To quote:

    Where else would such monumental first steps to bring this potentially revolutionary space technology to the world begin other than on a goat farm.

    “In December 2015, I got a phone call when I was actually away from Harvard [University] visiting Israel with my wife and she said, ‘Why don’t we go to a goat farm for the weekend?’,” recalled Prof Avi Loeb, renowned theoretical physicist and chairperson of the Breakthrough Starshot Advisory Committee, who is one of the scientific leaders of this incredible technology.

    Not long after they arrived, Loeb got a call from Breakthrough Starshot’s executive director, Pete Warden, asking him to file a report on the initial findings of whether such a project was feasible.

    “I said okay, but at the goat farm there was only internet in the office and I sat with my back to the wall at 6am in the morning looking at the goats and making up this presentation that I later delivered,” he said with incredulity.

    “It was bit surrealistic to look at the goats, and I bet the owner of the goat farm never imagined that the first realistic plan to go interstellar was contemplated at that farm!” [Historians take note! And I will refrain from asking why anyone would want to visit a goat farm as part of their vacation plans.]


    “The cost of an iPhone is nothing [in terms of space travel], so if one of these things burns, who cares? It’s not much money and you didn’t risk human life. This was not feasible more than a decade ago,” Loeb said. [Let’s just hope it isn’t aware, ay?]


    There is also the issue of keeping a human crew populated for decades and, as Loeb points out with a dash of humour: “How many times can you watch a movie?” [And this is why I do not want a theoretical physicist planning any manned interstellar missions.]


    But before Breakthrough Initiatives can begin its mission to Alpha Centauri, Loeb agreed that, in the meantime, the solar system offers a much more achievable testbed.

    If it can travel over four light years in 20 years, surely a flight to Jupiter, Neptune or even Pluto would take a fraction of the time it currently takes?

    “I actually think that a search within the solar system would be an intermediate step and this could revolutionise [near-Earth] studies,” Loeb said.

    and finally…

    Concluding on a high note, Loeb said that this scattergun approach of launching thousands of craft in the universe will ultimately offer us the best chance of finding intelligent life out there in the universe.

    Not due to the chances of one of the craft picking up a signal or evidence of extraterrestrials, but rather that something in the vastness of space would have a much better chance of finding us.

    “I think if we just wait a few centuries, our civilisation would send so many devices into space that [Earth’s] biggest [celestial] signature would be those devices.”

    Let’s hope someone, or something, out there is listening.

    [It is ironically amusing to see how while some (many) folks are quite fearful of us alerting an ETI to Earth and humanity’s presence, guys like Loeb and the author of this article think it would be just dandy. Perhaps similar differing points of view have and are taking place on other inhabited worlds as well. In any case I have brought up in CD and elsewhere more than once that every probe we send into the wider Milky Way galaxy will be our ambassadors into the unknown. Therefore they all need to carry some kind of information package to let any recipients know their (non-hostile) purpose and who sent them, along with when if at all possible. A lot of information can be stored in a small space these days and made relatively easily readable. If we are smart and bold enough to seriously consider interstellar missions, we need to be thinking ahead in all aspects of such a venture as much as possible. Merely lobbing vessels (and their final rocket stages) into deep space without any serious thought about what might become of them and how they could affect any recipients is frankly irresponsible. We can no longer ignore the issue as NASA largely did back in the early days, requiring Carl Sagan and just a few others to step in to fill that gap.]

    • Harry R Ray August 23, 2016, 17:03

      AFTER tomorrow, MAYBE the topic will be SLIGHTLY altered to: How Starshot will get us to PROXIMA Centauri b in 20 years”.

  • Alex Tolley August 23, 2016, 13:15

    But before Breakthrough Initiatives can begin its mission to Alpha Centauri, Loeb agreed that, in the meantime, the solar system offers a much more achievable testbed.

    If it can travel over four light years in 20 years, surely a flight to Jupiter, Neptune or even Pluto would take a fraction of the time it currently takes?

    “I actually think that a search within the solar system would be an intermediate step and this could revolutionise [near-Earth] studies,” Loeb said.

    Absolutely. Swarms of sail driven probes, mostly small, would really start to make the solar system more like a well mapped territory.

    • Joe August 23, 2016, 17:42

      Yes. Also if the light sail is only visiting other places in our solar system, maybe it would be practical to sacrifice some speed for payload in order to send slightly heavier and more capable “smart phones” to explore the solar system. Based on Claudio Flores Martinez’s previous article, a mission to Europa might be quite interesting.

      • Wojciech J August 24, 2016, 9:31

        I believe this was discussed very intensively when the news about this initiative was revealed. The ability to send numerous small probes to the Solar System is very interesting and helpful. There are plenty of very intriguing objects that we have hardly photos of, or none at all! Psyche, Triton, Umbriel….

      • Michael August 25, 2016, 9:16

        A heavier gravity lens telescope will do nicely, we could accelerate the whole telescope away at great speed but this would fly by the focus ‘point’ quickly. It may be better to have the mirror and a small computer/comm package to be released from the main communicator craft and slowed down to a stop or arc of viewing, a fission fragment sail could do this.

  • Wojciech J August 23, 2016, 13:17

    Enjoy your stay Paul! There was recently such wealth of material posted that it will keep me reading for a couple of days during holiday! Looking forward and with anticipation towards news on Wednesday…

  • Andrew Palfreyman August 23, 2016, 14:00

    For the USA, which spends a huge percentage of its GDP on military stuff, funding StarShot should be a breeze. The military applications of a 100 GW laser array- earth-based or not – are of course all too clear to everyone including the military. The problem is that the military are not renowned for their sharing abilities. A strong negotiator is needed here to hammer out some kind of deal and make it a win-win.

  • john walker August 23, 2016, 14:02

    Off to the stars at uhh.. 150 millikilomilesperhour! Yeehaw!

  • john walker August 23, 2016, 14:13

    Paul, would it be too much ask for you to perhaps suggest to those responsible that they consider streaming some of the seminars or at least recording for later uploading. Breakthrough Starshot has a Youtube channel. Alas, it contains next to nothing. Many thanks and best regards, John Walker.

  • Robert August 23, 2016, 14:47

    I’m an optimist. I think in ten years we will be talking about a probe arriving in another ten years at the nearest star.

    • ljk August 23, 2016, 17:20

      Just so long as it doesn’t turn into controlled fusion being available in twenty years – every twenty years.

  • Michael August 23, 2016, 16:41
  • Giulio Prisco August 24, 2016, 1:18

    The ESO press conference that could announce the detection of an Earth-like planet around Proxima will start today at 1 p.m. Central European Time (CET) – 1 p.m. EDT/10 a.m. PDT. I haven’t been able to find anything about a webcast, so I guess the press conference is only for journalists on site. I will monitor the Twitter hashtag https://twitter.com/search?q=%23ProximaCentauri

    • Giulio Prisco August 24, 2016, 10:16

      Sorry it’s 7pm Central European Time, 1pm EDT. Less than three hours to go…

  • Harry R Ray August 24, 2016, 10:36

    The TITLE of the press conference is “New Habitable Exoplanets”. That’s right:”………ExoplanetS”(PLURAL). Is there MORE THAN ONE orbiting Proxima Centauri(the data does NOT suggest this, but who knows?), or, is a TRAPPIST-1d UPDATE also in the mix.

  • ljk August 24, 2016, 12:43

    Daily news – 24 August 2016

    Interstellar probes will be eroded on the way to Alpha Centauri

    By Jacob Aron

    When you’re travelling at one-fifth the speed of light, even a small collision can hurt. Now we know exactly how much. A team working on a project to send tiny spacecraft to the stars have calculated the damage that hitting just a speck of dust could do.

    Breakthrough Starshot is an ambitious plan to launch probes weighing little more than a few grams at interstellar speeds using lasers. The goal is to reach the Alpha Centauri star system in just 20 years, and hopefully send back pictures of any planets that might be lurking there. Unconfirmed reports from German newspaper Der Spiegel suggest the discovery of one such world around the star Proxima Centauri is due to be announced later this month.

    When billionaire Yuri Milner announced the Breakthrough Starshot project earlier this year, he said a team of scientific advisers had identified around 20 challenges that would need to be tackled for a successful mission, and stumped up $100 million to fund this research. The full mission will likely cost many billions.

    Now Avi Loeb at Harvard University, who heads Milner’s scientific team, has completed the first of these studies, looking at the effects of collisions with the interstellar medium of dust and gas. “We did a thorough analysis, taking all the relevant physics into consideration,” he says. “We didn’t see any showstoppers.”

    Full article here:


    The online paper:


    • Michael August 24, 2016, 16:13

      Although dust will not be deflected by a face on charged spacecraft it will be slowed reducing the damage. There is also the fact when using the equation on an edge on sail the deflection radius can become larger than the thickness of the sail for most of it.

      • ljk August 25, 2016, 9:02

        Daedalus, the legendary BIS interstellar probe concept from the 1970s, had two main methods of protection: A large beryllium shield on the front (top?) of the probe attached to the section where the subprobes are stored and a Warden called a Dust Bug which would be used during the exoplanetary system encounter: It would fly ahead of Daedalus and spray a fine mist of material that could vaporize anything it impacted up to 200 kilograms.

  • Giulio Prisco August 24, 2016, 13:08

    ESO Press Release:

    Planet Found in Habitable Zone Around Nearest Star

  • Giulio Prisco August 24, 2016, 13:16

    The ESO press release has a link to an open pdf version of the paper to appear tomorrow in Nature.

    This is awesome, and I hope it will stimulate Starshot. I hope to live long enough to see the first probes taking off.

    • Ashley Baldwin August 25, 2016, 10:38

      I hope in the meantime it opens the door to dedicated telescopes that can image and characterise exoplanets . Over 3000 to choose from in twenty years but barely any characterisation with what little has been done via innovative use of Hubble and Spitzer telescopes, but only for close in hot Jupiters. No where near temperate terrestrials.

      Best guess is that the E-ELT should just be able to image Proxima b, but not when it first operates in 2025 . Five years later when its second generation spectroscope EPICS starts operations for just this purpose.

      EPICS still needs a decade’s development to be fair but other technologies are available now . Its just a question of cost ( which needn’t be as much as you think . For instance a bespoke “Alpha Centauri Imager” like the Nasa’s ACE-sat concept telescope ) and will. A recent report criticised the inclusion of an exoplanet coronagraph on WFIRST “as limiting other astronomical advances”.

  • ljk August 25, 2016, 10:33

    As per usual, what may hold up humanity from reaching the stars sooner is neither the will nor the know-how, but mundane, parochial, and short-sighted politics:


    Space fans and professionals really need to learn how to play that game better, if for no other reason than to beat these limited and limiting types at their own game so we can make some real progress.

    I also suggest a viewing of the 2015 film Tomorrowland for the inspiration if nothing else.


  • ljk August 25, 2016, 10:57

    The latest issue (number 14) of Principium, the Initiative for Interstellar Studies newsletter, just arrived online here:


    Lots of cool stuff on Daedalus.

    All the back issues of Principium may be found online here:


  • ljk August 26, 2016, 16:38

    It is rather amusing how the media and others are suddenly discovering that a starship going even kinda relativistic is in danger of inflicting damage from interstellar debris:


    Once again we can blame the public getting its science “education” from various entertainment which depicts starships zipping through space with no apparent consequences in that regard. Sure, Star Trek ships use deflector shields but it’s not something either seen or discussed much.

    Also from the same source on the same day, just for good measure:


  • Localfluff August 27, 2016, 3:29

    Do they have a group working on what science such interstellar probes could do?

    I suppose that tiny instruments could measure the interstellar medium’s and the stellar systems interplanetary medium’s density and composition, the stellar wind, magnetic field. And stars are bright so star spots and differential rotation and flares should be detectable. One such instrument for each probe.

    Studying an exoplanet is harder. With 11½ days orbital period, they’d need great precision with that laser thrust, or any deviation would grow during 20 years and the planet would be on the other side of the star as the probe flies by.