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Breakthrough Discuss Concluding Today

Breakthrough Discuss 2021 wraps up today, with presentations on mission concepts to Alpha Centauri, lightsail technologies and fusion propulsion. Of particular interest to me, in light of the magnitude of the problem as it affects the Breakthrough Starshot idea, is a session on the current state of deep space optical communications. This has been a lively and robust meeting — James Cameron’s appearance was particularly engaging, as was the Yuri’s Night panel discussion — and the public is invited to watch again today at https://www.youtube.com/breakthroughprize. Gathering my notes is going to be time-consuming, but many of these presentations will make their way into upcoming discussions on Centauri Dreams.

In light of the wide-ranging discussion on the Centauri stars and the challenge they present, it seems appropriate to introduce a quote I just ran into from Alan Lightman’s new book Probable Impossibilities (Pantheon, 2021). This is from a section talking about quantum cosmology, but it resonates with the energies that drive all human discovery:

In the 1940s, the American psychologist Abraham Maslow developed the concept of a hierarchy of human needs, starting with the most primitive and urgent, and ending with the most lofty and advanced for those fortunates who had satisfied the baser needs. At the bottom of the pyramid are physical needs for survival, like food and water. Next up is safety. Higher up is love and belonging, then self-esteem, and finally self-actualization. This highest of Maslow’s proposed needs is the desire to get the most out of ourselves, to be the best we can be. I would suggest adding one more category at the very top of the pyramid, even above self-actualization: imagination and exploration. The need to imagine new possibilities, the need to reach out beyond ourselves and understand the world around us. Wasn’t that need part of what propelled Marco Polo and Vasco da Gama and Einstein? Not only to help ourselves with physical survival or personal relationships or self-discovery, but to know and comprehend this strange cosmos we find ourselves in. The need to explore the really big questions asked by the quantum cosmologists. How did it all begin? Far beyond our own lives, far beyond our community or our nation or planet Earth or even our solar system. How did the universe begin? It is a luxury to be able to ask such questions. It is also a human necessity.


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  • Alex Tolley April 13, 2021, 13:09

    On Day 2, George Church’s Keynote address was really “out there” on a biology-based approach for communicating back to Earth. hand-waving doesn’t come near to describing the technological leaps needed. It was as close to saying “nano-technology pixie dust” will facilitate this. But Church has always been a very innovative thinker in the biology space, so I wouldn’t write off his ideas, but I doubt they will prove practical for a very long time, if ever.

  • Alex Tolley April 13, 2021, 17:16

    There seems to be some sleight of hand regarding the fusion drive proposal. A slide suggests that the needed Ve for an alpha-Centauri mission must be > 1000 km/s.

    from the slide: “We don’t yet have a method for reaching those exhaust velocities”

    So the drive cannot do more than 300 km/s and they cannot reach the needed exhaust velocities. Yet the next slide shows a “plausible”
    reference mission with a Ve = 5000 km/s with a 400 year mission time.

    No follow up in the Q&A.

  • Frank Taylor April 14, 2021, 5:54

    Paul, I really like that quote from Alan Lightman’s new book. It really resonates with the soul of an explorer. And, I’m sure many of us who thoroughly enjoy your blog concur.

    • Paul Gilster April 14, 2021, 7:53

      I count you among the explorers, Frank, given your globe-spanning five-year odyssey in Tahina! Always glad to see you here.

  • ljk April 14, 2021, 11:46

    All Eyes on Alpha Centauri

    Takeaways from this week’s Breakthrough Discuss meeting.

    By Dirk Schulze-Makuch


    Currently the premier organization dedicated to searching for advanced life in the universe is the Breakthrough Initiatives program funded by billionaire Yuri Milner in 2015. Each year the program holds a conference known as Breakthrough Discuss to talk about progress in the field, and this pandemic year was no exception. The fact that this week’s discussions were all virtual turned out to be an advantage for the public, who could watch the sessions live on YouTube. Alpha Centauri was the 2021 conference’s main theme, which makes sense considering that one of Breakthrough’s goals is to send a mission to our neighboring star system within the next generation.

    The meeting started with an engaging keynote by John Grunsfeld, a former astronaut and head of NASA’s science program, who reviewed past space exploration efforts. Then the discussion turned to how to map the Alpha Centauri system. A highlight of this first session was film director James Cameron’s talk on how science informs his filmmaking (he also revealed that he is currently filming Avatar 2 and Avatar 3 in New Zealand).


  • ljk April 16, 2021, 13:20

    NASA’s New Horizons reaches rare distance, looks out to Voyager

    April 15, 2021 — New Horizons is a long, long, long way from home.

    Fifteen years after launching from Earth at a record speed, and six years since it became the first-ever spacecraft to fly by Pluto, NASA’s New Horizons is about to reach a mile marker that only four other robotic probes in history have surpassed.

    On Saturday (April 17) at 8:42 p.m. EDT (1242 GMT April 18), New Horizons will reach 50 AU (astronomical units) from the sun — or 50 times the distance the Earth is from the sun. That is 4.65 billion miles (7.5 billion kilometers). At 50 AU, it takes more than 6.5 hours for signals sent from New Horizons to reach Earth, and that is while traveling at the speed of light.

    “I just think of the enormity of it,” Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said in an interview with collectSPACE. “It hasn’t been done in a generation, since the Voyagers crossed these distances, and we’re the only spacecraft out there in the outer heliosphere and the Kuiper Belt.”

    Full article here:


    To quote:

    To underscore how far Voyager 1 had traveled, NASA pointed the probe’s camera back toward the inner solar system in 1990 when it was approximately 40.11 AU from Earth. The resulting mosaic image, now known as the “Family Portrait,” captured six planets — Venus, Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus — as just a few pixels of light each.

    At 50 AU from the sun, New Horizons could not do the same.

    “The math tells us that would burn out our camera because we would be pointed at the sun,” Stern said, noting that even at such great a distance, the sun remains too bright for its long-range reconnaissance imager, which was calibrated for the dimly lit encounter with Pluto. “So we don’t want to do that until we are past the Kuiper Belt years from now.”

    Instead, Stern and his team pointed New Horizons toward Voyager 1, marking the first time that a spacecraft in the Kuiper Belt photographed the location of an even more distant spacecraft now traveling through interstellar space.

    “Of course, we didn’t see Voyager 1 because it is too faint, but we imaged the star field,” Stern told collectSPACE. “We looked with the camera to where the farthest spacecraft is and took a picture of that star field from our position in the Kuiper Belt. It is just hauntingly beautiful to me, even though it is just a picture of stars.”

    “This is an homage to Voyager’s pioneering mission, in addition to marking what we are doing,” he said.

  • ljk April 29, 2021, 14:43

    Apr 27, 2021, 06:00 pm EDT

    NASA’s New ‘Voyager’: 7 Things To Know About The 50-Year ‘Interstellar Probe’ Mission To Burst Our Cosmic Bubble

    Jamie Carter, Senior Contributor Science

    I inspire people to go stargazing, watch the Moon, enjoy the night sky.


    1. It will update our ‘Pale Blue Dot’ photo

    “The Interstellar Probe will go to the unknown local interstellar space, where humanity has never reached before,” said Elena Provornikova, the Interstellar Probe heliophysics lead from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (APL) in Maryland.

    “For the first time, we will take a picture of our vast heliosphere from the outside to see what our Solar System home looks like.”

  • ljk May 3, 2021, 13:22

    NASA solar probe becomes fastest object ever built as it ‘touches the sun’

    The Parker Solar Probe was clocked at over 330,000 miles per hour as it zipped through the sun’s outer atmosphere.

    Jackson Ryan

    May 2, 2021 6:50 p.m. PT


    Parker set two records back in February 2020:

    Fastest human-made object: 244,255 mph (393,044 km/h).
    Closest spacecraft to the sun: 11.6 million miles (18.6 million kilometers).

    But those records have now been surpassed. The latest:

    Fastest human-made object: 330,000 mph (532,000 km/h).
    Closest spacecraft to the sun: 6.5 million miles (10.4 million kilometers).

  • ljk June 24, 2021, 12:52


    Jun 23, 2021

    Advanced Composite Solar Sail System: Using Sunlight to Power Deep Space Exploration

    NASA is developing new deployable structures and materials technologies for solar sail propulsion systems destined for future low-cost deep space missions. Just as a sailboat is powered by wind in a sail, solar sails employ the pressure of sunlight for propulsion, eliminating the need for conventional rocket propellant. NASA’s Advanced Composite Solar Sail System, or ACS3, mission uses composite materials – or a combination of materials with different properties, in its novel, lightweight booms that deploy from a CubeSat. Data obtained from the ACS3 mission will guide the design of future larger-scale composite solar sail systems that could be used for space weather early warning satellites, near-Earth asteroid reconnaissance missions, or communications relays for crewed exploration missions.

    The primary objective of the ACS3 mission is to demonstrate the successful deployment of the composite boom solar sail in low-Earth orbit. After reaching space, the mission’s CubeSat spacecraft will deploy its solar power arrays and then begin unfurling its solar sail via four booms that span the diagonals of the square and unspool to reach 7 meters (about 23 feet) in length. After approximately 20 or 30 minutes when the solar sail is fully deployed, the square-shaped solar sail measures approximately 9 meters (about 30 feet) per side or about the size of a small apartment. A suite of onboard digital cameras will obtain images of the sail during and after deployment in order to assess its shape and alignment.

    The ACS3 mission’s sails are supported and connected to the spacecraft by booms, which function much like a sailboat’s boom that connects to its mast and keeps the sail taut. The composite booms are made from a polymer material that is flexible and reinforced with carbon fiber. This composite material can be rolled for compact stowage, but remains strong and lightweight when unrolled. It is also very stiff and resistant to bending and warping due to changes in temperature. Solar sails can operate indefinitely, limited only by the space environment durability of the solar sail materials and spacecraft electronic systems. The ASC3 mission will also test an innovative tape-spool boom extraction system designed to minimize jamming of the coiled booms during deployment.

    Interest in solar sailing as an alternative to chemical and electric propulsion systems continues to increase. Using sunlight to propel small spacecraft in lieu of consumable propellants will be advantageous for many mission profiles and offers flexibility in spacecraft design to help NASA meet its missions’ objectives most efficiently.