The challenges involved in sending gram-class probes to Proxima Centauri could not be more stark. They’re implicit in Kevin Parkin’s analysis of the Breakthrough Starshot system model, which ran in Acta Astronautica in 2018 (citation below). The project settled on twenty percent of the speed of light as a goal, one that would reach Proxima Centauri b well within the lifetime of researchers working on the project. The probe mass is 3.6 grams, with a 200 nanometer-thick sail some 4.1 meters in diameter.

The paper we’ve been looking at from Marshall Eubanks (along with a number of familiar names from the Initiative for Interstellar Studies including Andreas Hein, his colleague Adam Hibberd, and Robert Kennedy) accepts the notion that these probes should be sent in great numbers, and not only to exploit the benefits of redundancy to manage losses along the way. A “swarm” approach in this case means a string of probes launched one after the other, using the proposed laser array in the Atacama desert. The exciting concept here is that these probes can reform themselves from a string into a flat, lens-shaped mesh network some 100,000 kilometers across.

Image: Figure 16 from the paper. Caption: Geometry of swarm’s encounter with Proxima b. The Beta-plane is the plane orthogonal to the velocity vector of the probe ”at infinity” as it approaches the planet; in this example the star is above (before) the Beta-plane. To ensure that the elements of the swarm pass near the target, the probe-swarm is a disk oriented perpendicular to the velocity vector and extended enough to cover the expected transverse uncertainty in the probe-Proxima b ephemeris. Credit: Eubanks et al.

The Proxima swarm presents one challenge I hadn’t thought of. We have to be able to predict the position of Proxima b to within 10,000 kilometers at least 8.6 years before flyby – this is the time for complete information cycle between Earth, Proxima and back to Earth. Effectively, we need to figure out the planet’s velocity to a value of 1 meter per second, with a correspondingly tight angular position (0.1 microradians).

Although we already have Proxima b’s period (11.68 days), we need to determine its line of nodes, eccentricity, inclination and epoch, and also its perturbations by the other planets in the system. At the time of flyby, the most recent Earth update will be at least 8.5 years old. The Proxima b orbit state will need to be propagated over at least that interval to predict its position, and that prediction needs to be accuracy to the order of the swarm diameter.

The authors suggest that a small spacecraft in Earth orbit can refine Proxima b’s position and the star’s ephemeris, but note that a later paper will dig into this further.

In the previous post I looked at the “Time on Target” and “Velocity on Target” techniques that would make swarm coherence possible, with variations in acceleration and velocity allowing later-launched probes to reach higher speeds, but with higher drag so that as they reach the craft sent before them, they slow to match their speed. From the paper again:

A string of probes relying on the ToT technique only could indeed form a swarm coincident with the Proxima Centauri system, or any other arbitrary point, albeit briefly. But then absent any other forces it would quickly disperse afterwards. Post-encounter dispersion of the swarm is highly undesirable, but can be eliminated with the VoT technique by changing the attitude of the spacecraft such that the leading edge points at an angle to the flight direction, increasing the drag induced by the ISM, and slowing the faster swarm members as they approach the slower ones. Furthermore, this approach does not require substantial additional changes to the baseline BTS [Breakthrough Starshot] architecture.

In other words, probes launched at different times with a difference in velocity target a point on their trajectory where the swarm can cohere, as the paper puts it. The resulting formation is then retained for the rest of the mission. The plan is to adjust the attitude of the leading probes continually as they move through the interstellar medium, which means variations in their aspect ratio and sectional density. A probe can move edge-on, for instance, or fully face-on, with variations in between. The goal is that the probes lost later in the process catch up with but do not move past the early probes.

All this is going to take a lot of ‘smarts’ on the part of the individual probes, meaning we have to have ways for them to communicate not just with Earth but with each other. The structure of the probes discussed here is an innovation. The authors propose that key components like laser communications and computation should be concentrated, so that whereas the central disk is flat, the ‘heart of the device,’ as they put it, is concentrated in a 2-cm thickened rim around the outside of the sail disk.

The center of the disk is optical, or as the paper puts it, ‘a thin but large-aperture phase-coherent meta-material disk of flat optics similar to a fresnel lens…’ which will be used for imaging as well as communications. Have a look at the concept:

Image: This is Figure 3a from the paper. Caption: Oblique view of the top/forward of a probe (side facing away from the launch laser) depicting array of phase-coherent apertures for sending data back to Earth, and optical transceivers in the rim for communication with each other. Credit: Eubanks et al.

So we have a sail moving at twenty percent of lightspeed through an incoming hydrogen flux, an interesting challenge for materials science. The authors consider both aerographene and aerographite. I had assumed these were the same material, but digging into the matter reveals that aerographene consists of a three-dimensional network of graphene sheets mixed with porous aerogel, while aerographite is a sponge-like formation of interconnected carbon nanotubes. Both offer extremely low density, so much so that the paper notes the performance of aerographene for deceleration is 104 times better than conventional mylar. Usefully, both of these materials have been synthesized in the laboratory and mass production seems feasible.

Back to the probe’s shape, which is dictated by the needs not only of acceleration but survival of its electronics – remember that these craft must endure a laser launch that will involve at least 10,000 g’s. The raised rim layout reminds the authors of a red corpuscle as opposed to what has been envisioned up to now as a simple flat disk. The four-meter central disk contains 247 25-cm structures arranged, as the illustration shows, like a honeycomb. We’ll use this optical array for both imaging Proxima b but also returning data to Earth, and each of the arrays offers redundancy given that impacts with interstellar hydrogen will invariably create damage to some elements.

Remember that the plan is to build an intelligent swarm, which demands laser links between the probes themselves. Making sure each probe is aware of its neighbors is crucial here, for which purpose it will use the optical transceivers around its rim. The paper calculates that this would make each probe detectable by its closest neighbor out to something close to 6,000 kilometers. The probes transmit a pulsed beacon as they scan for neighboring probes, and align to create the needed mesh network. The alignment phase is under study and will presumably factor into the NIAC work.

The paper backs out to explain the overall strategy:

…our innovation is to use advances in optical clocks, mode-locked optical lasers, and network protocols to enable a swarm of widely separated small spacecraft or small flotillas of such to behave as a single distributed entity. Optical frequency and reliable picosecond timing, synchronized between Earth and Proxima b, is what underpins the capability for useful data return despite the seemingly low source power, very large space loss and low signal-to-noise ratio.

For what is going to happen is that the optical pulses between the probes will be synchronized, meaning that despite the sharp constraints on available energy, the same signal photons are ‘squeezed’ into a smaller transmission slot, which increases the brightness of the signal. We get data rates through this brightening that could not otherwise be achieved, and we also get data from various angles and distances. On Earth, a square kilometer array of 796 ‘light buckets’ can receive the pulses.

Image: This is Figure 13 from the paper. Caption: Figure 13: A conceptual receiver implemented as a large inflatable sphere, similar to widely used inflatable antenna domes; the upper half is transparent, the lower half is silvered to form a half-sphere mirror. At the top is a secondary mirror which sends the light down into a cone-shaped accumulator which gathers it into the receiver in the base. The optical signals would be received and converted to electrical signals – most probably with APDs [avalanche photo diodes] at each station and combined electrically at a central processing facility. Each bucket has a 10-nm wide band-pass filter, centered on the Doppler-shifted received laser frequency. This could be made narrower, but since the probes will be maneuvering and slowing in order to meet up and form the swarm, and there will be some deceleration on the whole swarm due to drag induced by the ISM, there will be some uncertainty in the exact wavelength of the received signal. Credit: Eubanks et al.

If we can achieve a swarm that is in communication with its members using micro-miniaturized clocks to keep operations synchronous, we can thus use all of the probes to build up a single detectable laser pulse bright enough to overcome the background light of Proxima Centauri and reach the array on Earth. The concept is ingenious and the paper so rich in analysis and conjecture that I keep going back to it, but don’t have time today to do more than cover these highlights. The analysis of enroute and approach science goals and methods alone would make for another article. But it’s probably best that I simply send you to the paper itself, one which anyone interested in interstellar mission design should download and study.

The paper is Eubanks et al., “Swarming Proxima Centauri: Optical Communication Over Interstellar Distances,” submitted to the Breakthrough Starshot Challenge Communications Group Final Report and available online. Kevin Parkin’s invaluable analysis of Starshot is Parkin, K.L.G., “The Breakthrough Starshot system model,” Acta Astronautica 152 (2018), 370–384 (abstract / preprint).