Stephen Hawking backs $100 Million Russian Effort to Build a Relativistic Space Probe

Figure 9 from "A Roadmap to Interstellar Flight"

Figure 9 from “A Roadmap to Interstellar Flight”

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

The quest to send a physical probe to the nearest stars is heating up – renowned Physicist Stephen Hawking has teamed up with Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, to launch a laser propelled space probe at 20% of the speed of light, on a 20 year mission to physically visit the nearest stars.

According to The Guardian;

Stephen Hawking and Yuri Milner launch $100m star voyage

Project to aim for sending a featherweight robotic spacecraft to the nearest star at one-fifth of the speed of light.

In an unprecedented boost for interstellar travel, the Silicon Valley philanthropist Yuri Milner and the world’s most famous cosmologist Stephen Hawking have announced $100m (£70m) for research into a 20-year voyage to the nearest stars, at one fifth of the speed of light.

Breakthrough Starshot – the third Breakthrough initiative in the past four years – will test the knowhow and technologies necessary to send a featherweight robot spacecraft to the Alpha Centauri star system, at a distance of 4.37 light years: that is, 40,000,000,000,000 kilometres or 25 trillion miles.

A 100 billion-watt laser-powered light beam would accelerate a “nanocraft” – something weighing little more than a sheet of paper and driven by a sail not much bigger than a child’s kite, fashioned from fabric only a few hundred atoms in thickness – to the three nearest stars at 60,000km a second.

Milner, a Russian-born billionaire investor who began as a physicist, was one of the founders of the Breakthrough prizes, the biggest in science, announced in 2012 and awarded for fundamental research in physics, life sciences and mathematics. Last year, he and Professor Stephen Hawking of the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at Cambridge announced another $100m Breakthrough Listen initiative to step up the search for extraterrestrial life beyond the solar system. The project has just released its first data from stars within 16 light years of Earth. The entrepreneur describes science as his “hobby.”

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WUWT recently suggested that NASA should be spending money on deep space missions, including a laser propelled interstellar probe, instead of squandering their budget, replicating climate work already being performed by other government agencies.

Thankfully it now looks like wealthy private individuals have picked up the ball which NASA dropped. The first mission to the nearest star will bear the Russian flag – but at least that mission now looks likely to happen.

228 thoughts on “Stephen Hawking backs $100 Million Russian Effort to Build a Relativistic Space Probe

    • George can you read !! They clearly say RESEARCH I would think $100,000,000 would encompass your non-thought

      • Well George, I don’t write too well, but yes I can read.
        I believe I read: ” $100m (£70m) for research into a 20-year voyage to the nearest stars, ” to which you have again pointed my attention.
        And after further careful thought my response to such research would be; “Nutz”.
        There does that make my opinion clear to you ?

      • Interesting…”The first mission to the nearest star will bear the Russian Flag”
        According to how they describe the proposed probe, it sounds like the first mission to the nearest star will BE the Russian Flag

      • Well Bryan, the first mission to the nearest star would surely be going to the sun, wouldn’t it ??

    • Well Nag; you just put your finger on the gotcha that proves how nutty these folks are.
      No way to know even when they get there, let alone see what is that is there.
      Are they going to do a flyby at 60,000 km/sec, or are they planning on a soft or hard landing, depending on whether the star is hard or soft.

      • It is nice to see you have all their plans in front of you and all the wisdom in the universe to conclude that what they are attempting can’t be done. That they don’t have enough brains to recognize the needs required to accomplish the acceleration out, and the deceleration into the target system. Too bad your “steel trap” mind is rusted shut by too much global humidity caused by the global warming we hear so much about. I know, you feel that the $100 million could be better spent, but if that is the case, then raise it and spend it.

      • Tom, these are rational concerns. Yes, it’s nice to send something to Alpha Centauri, but by the design given, no data can be returned (featherweights have pitiful power, so it’s definitely unable to send radio over even interplanetary, much less interstellar distances). With the description given, a single dust particle could obliterate the starcraft entirely. The very nature of this design requires a huge external source to decelerate. A power source that simply won’t exist unless there is a civilization on Alpha Centauri with specialized technology and desire to do so. Due to the lack of scalability of laser acceleration (it only works on extremely light yet big things, kites essentially), the ONLY end result of doing this is to say that we have done it.
        It’s not a matter of genius or lack thereof. It’s a matter of reading their description and using a lick of sense.

      • “””””….. Tom O
        April 13, 2016 at 6:29 am …..”””””
        Don’t know Tom, if your comment is directed at me, since it is in my branch, but; nowhere did I say it can’t be done. I hardly gave the doability of such an experiment, a thought.
        I didn’t get past the idea of spending $100,000,000 on just the research for such an experiment.
        A hundred $B here and a hundred $B there, and pretty soon you are talking real money.
        Now I’m quite happy to have a Russian Billionaire spend such an amount; if he has it he should spend it however he wants. That still doesn’t change MY opinion that the very idea of spending that much money just to research such an experiment is nuts.
        I’m not going to offer any ‘ preferred ‘ list of alternative projects to spend $100B on. I don’t waste a whole lot of time trying to come up with ideas on how to spend someone else’s money. I have enough problems prioritizing what I spend my own money on.
        The thermo-nuclear fusion problem already is faced with the reality that gravity sucks, so stellar fusion is automatic, but the Coulomb force repels, and you need something else outside your repulsive force to push against to push inwards uniformly.
        So now we want to address another problem where the use of the Coulomb force can only push against something else (the earth).
        Only in science fiction can one do with no apparent supporting physics, the wondrous things like geo-forming other planets or starting a permanent colony on Pluto.
        We shall see, just how long this proposal by this well heeled Russian benefactor last as a private venture, before roping in taxpayers, who can’t even have a say in how their money gets spent.

      • One correction George, it’s $100M, not $100B. It’s still an insane amount of money by any normal standards, but T-Boone Pickens spent almost twice that on the OSU football team.
        So long as it’s private funds, I have no objections, though I stand by assertion that it is useless scientifically

      • I’m going to assume; just as a starting position that everybody gets on board, and agrees to fund this project at whatever money level it takes, without limit. Why not, it’s for the good of science.
        So we are going to point a big powerful laser out into space, where our gossamer kite has been unfolded (maybe from the ISS or its progeny).
        Now to get this laser beam to go say five light years, so you still have control of the space ship out near Proxima Centauri, you would presumably use the TEM00 laser beam mode, since that is the most efficient in beam confinement, giving a Gaussian beam cross-section that propagates according to very well known EM radiation laws.
        So somewhere between earth and Proxima Centauri, we would have a Gaussian beam waist, where the laser beam wave front has a minimum diameter, and which is preferably about twice the 1/e^2 Gaussian profile diameter, to keep diffraction energy losses down.
        A lot of practical laser optics uses 1.5 times the 1/e^2 diameter, but they aren’t planning on going too far, and want to keep laser optics size, weight and cost down.
        This often dictates that the Gaussian beam waist occurs right at the exit surface of the laser, so the optics is minimum diameter. Well that is cool, but it also means that you only have half of the Raleigh range available for the external beam, so you will have beam waist expansion right from the get go.
        Well I won’t go on; you can use astronomically large laser optics, or put up with rapid beam expansion. In any case $100M won’t buy you any laser optics, that comes close to the size of your laser sail.
        But I’m not saying it can’t be done; Just right now, I wouldn’t buy shares in the information that we get back in maybe a couple of hundred years from the Alpha Centauri stars.
        But go ahead; and I’ll just watch from my rocking chair on my front verandah. Beats watching the grass grow.

      • Yes Ben, sorry for the typo. For $100B read $100M.
        Doesn’t change my thought one iota nor a factor of 1,000.

      • Today’s news stories on my laptop says this project also includes a hunt for alien life; by sending a fleet of these laser kites.
        It gets crazier by the minute. Plenty of alien life here on earth to study.
        And yes these distant aliens are smarter than us, and already know how to travel the stars so they will come looking when they get one of our kite bottles with a message in 57 languages engraved on it.

      • Mind you, if one takes inflation into account it’ll only amount to about 95,000,000 dollars by then and if the dollar goes the way of the Weimar Reichsmark then it’s only a few cents.
        It ain’t a lot really…..

      • Easy to solve , strap a homing pigeon to it then let it go when it gets the star so it can bring back the message of its arrival . All you need now is 100 billion for the research needed to produce this interstellar bird .

    • A flyby through the solar system at 20% of the speed of light would take just under a day, so there will be plenty of opportunity to make observations which are not possible from Earth based observatories, assuming that serious observation equipment can somehow be attached to a featherweight probe.
      In addition, there may be ways of slowing down and steering. A probe can deliberately create an electric charge by radiating charged particles – the electric charge causes the flight to be deflected by the galactic magnetic field.
      It might also be possible for a solar sail ship to slow down by diving into the target star. The kind of mirror a probe propelled by a gigawatt laser beam must carry, you could potentially get close enough to the target star to shed large amounts of velocity without melting. Of course, there are serious technical challenges – the best mirrors are very frequency specific.

      • And of course that frequency changes as the probe accelerates,although 20% light isn’t very relativistic. How any mirror could be expected to reflect gigawatts/2meter of power is anybodies guess.

      • There is also the matter of getting the data back. Radio waves get quite weak over interplanetary distances, much less interstellar, so those are out. Minor adjustments to course might be possible, but you can’t turn around a full 180 degrees. Without any science fiction faster-than-light communications, there’s no way to control it or even receive a transmission from it.

  1. This sounds really cool….but….
    How is this micro prob going to communicate with earth? Maybe by adjusting the albedo of the sail, changing the power intensity of the reflected laser? At those distances, it would surprise me if that would work, but I haven’t done the math, so who knows.

    • “Micro” is relative. This thing is a solar sail several kilometers in diameter. Communication would probably be via laser-communications.

    • Correct. A craft that small would have no carrying capacity for observational instrumentation or communications. It’s a fantasy.
      Meanwhile the Moon sits three days away and no one is bothering to go back up there.

      • squandering their budget, replicating climate work already being performed by other government agencies.
        Having reached the moon, NASA next launched a mission to – I kid you not – Planet Earth.
        The problem was budgets. Everyone wanted a share of NASA’s budget for their own pet project. So the lobbying began. NASA was wasting money sending space missions into outer space, that money should be spend here on earth.
        And what better way to increase the budgets than a scare story. Global warming justified the mission to planet earth, and the big budgets that went on things like GISS temperature record of ground stations. Nothing to do with space, yet included in the “space studies” because earth is a planet in space.
        If you were to write a fiction story about this it would never sell, because it would be too unbelievable.

    • Just have a bunch of entangled particles on the probe, and watch what happens to their partners back home – simples.

  2. One hundred billion watts, centered on a physical object the size of a sheet of paper, only a few hundred atoms thick. I predict a momentary flicker as the sail translates immediately to a ball of light-driven plasma.

      • I’m guessing that while the craft is close to earth, the laser will be dialed back a bit.
        As the craft gets further from earth, even the tightest laser will spread, so only a small fraction of that total power will actually be hitting the craft.

    • It’s not a pencil beam. The sail will be several kilometers in diameter, so the energy would be spread out over a wide area.

      • A 100 billion-watt laser-powered light beam would accelerate a “nanocraft” – something weighing little more than a sheet of paper and driven by a
        sail not much bigger than a child’s kite
        sail not much bigger than a child’s kite
        sail not much bigger than a child’s kite
        \sail not much bigger than a child’s kite
        , fashioned from fabric only a few hundred atoms in thickness
        One hundred billion watts
        25 trillion miles distance
        for how many years?
        what amazing resolution? ( )
        what awesome power density (megawatt per meter squared?)
        what incredibly focal length (ivanpagh in space?)
        the brooklyn bridge may be a better bargain for the discriminating entrepreneur.

      • “…and driven by a sail not much bigger than a child’s kite”
        Not quite a pencil, it’s still lotsa Watts / sq in.

    • Color me uninformed, but, are there 100 billion watt lasers capable of continuous operation for decades? where would be put such a device? Seems to me it would have to be built on an asteroid or some other body without an atmosphere. They don’t intend to operate that thing through earth’s atmosphere do they?
      I know the Japanese have built a 2 petawatt laser, but it only ‘fires’ for a pico-sec and that the NIF has a 500TW laser(s) (192 of them combined to produce a 500TW ‘shot’ in 2012) but that again can only be fired in sub micro-sec bursts.
      Where are we going to get the energy to power a 100BW laser over an extended period?

  3. Nope in years to come and the rise of the Space Junk universal catastrophy there will be demands to take criminal action against those who put the space junk out there. You can already see what parties will position themselves on this gravy train when the current one dies out.

    • Space junk is a self-solving problem. Every gram of mass that’s already in orbit is a gram of mass that we don’t have to boost out of Earth’s gravity well. Here in California, how many aluminum cans do you see littering the roads? Darned few, because people collect and recycle them (and use the money for booze). Space “junk” will be policed up just as thoroughly, as soon as we have a few orbital recycling ships.
      Asteroid mining? Screw THAT noise; Space Junk collecting will be FAR more lucrative.

      • You missing the play here Ken, the problem will be worse than thought and it will no doubt involve the ultimate destruction of the earth and possibly the universe. We will then need tax payer funded conferences every couple of years to try and get a date by which we can avert the space junk catastrophy (SJC). We will need to harness science to get 97% of them onside with SJC theory.
        You really don’t see the play here do you 🙂

    • “Nope in years to come and the rise of the Space Junk universal catastrophy…”
      Might not be a problem when you have “A 100 billion-watt laser-powered light beam”.

  4. A probe at 0.2c will experience precisely zero relativistic effects, rounded to the nearest 0.0001%.
    However, the idea is emminently doable, and practical; we’re going to need to send probes to MANY of the nearer star systems to find even ONE remotely habitable planet. And what’s the point of having a starship if we don’t have anywhere to go in it?
    I especially like the idea of having thousands – millions? of nanoprobes each recording its own perspectives; compared to a solar system, planets are pretty darned small. My concern would be … how will those probes communicate back to Earth? THAT’S the part that I don’t think they’ll be able to figure out. But perhaps, some sort of quantum entanglement between the probe we launch and an identical probe remaining here? If anybody can figure THAT out, it would be Hawking.

    • Nanoprobes – okay, interesting. But definitely not something fed govt should be spending tax dollars on. People that want to research crap, err I mean stuff, like this must use their own money. Not Mine!

      • Illogical. Government funded, broad spectrum research (research with no specific capitalistic goals) has provided economic returns five times greater than the costs. It actually harms the economy and harms future growth for the government not to fund scientific research and space exploration.

      • I challenge you to prove that claim.
        Include all govt funding for research, not just those lines of research that resulted in something.
        Secondly, discount for the fact that govt research is money taken away from the private sector resulting in less economic growth.

      • MarkW,
        Can we deduct from the total the political science money spent on CAGW? That can’t be counted as “real” research in anybodies book, can it?

      • MarkW – don’t you think that the space age accelerated computer technology – It must be work a few hundred Trillion. Wars did the same thing.

      • The Kennedy moon project came in under budget, and ahead of the time limit, and yes it’s total cost was recovered in less time than the project took, but that was because of the weather and communication satellites that were an essential part of that (manned project). An unmanned probe project would have required no weather satellites nor communication satellites. Mercury/Gemini/Apollo was a bargain.
        As I recall, the moon was at that time the closest space object; well not counting Sputnik.
        When you consider that the world economy cannot even get clean water and subsistence electricity to maybe half of the world population; this $100M research project, is ok for a private venture (more power to him), but not a critical tax funded need.

    • According to the nano teck people involved with projects like this, as soon as the “probes”, on arrival at their destination would then use available material (star dust) to expand their mission, replicate themselves and seeing that they (by Hawking et al) were programmed to build a sending system to then send back info to us. That it hasn’t been build yet and then would take 20 years to reach Alpha C, the earliest we would see a message back from them would be at the earliest be some time on April 1st 2040.

    • Shouldn’t that be 4%? At velocity v the relativistic effect is of the order (v/c)**2 = 0.04.

    • One obvious thing. If you can send one starwisp you can send quite a few of them, one after another. Each of them needs a powerful enough radio to reach the next, but not all the way to earth, so the inverse square law is less of a pain.

      • So we put our refuse paper in space, then goose it to Alpha Centauri with a bigass laser.
        Wouldn’t the second one block the first one from the laser?

    • A few years ago he actually made the claim that the Earth was going to end up like Venus if we didn’t stop producing CO2.

      • Give the guy a break. He can only speak through a computer and he can’t go anywhere his wheel chair and support stuff can’t go. He can’t turn his head. If all you can do is read a lot, you may come to believe in the huge dump of propaganda that is CAGW. Detractors of Stephen Hawking should ask themselves, with all their arms and legs and faculties if they have done as well.

      • I had the good fortune to attend a public seminar given by Stephen Hawking, in Si Valley.
        The NEWS media were all up stage front firing their flash bulbs in his face.
        He ‘texts’ with his on screen keyboard by glancing at a chosen letter, which the computer figures out from looking at his eyes. Yes a very determined accomplished person.
        A whole lot of persons are very accomplished at something.

    • Well, we will just have to go out and clean it up, won’t we. Do you realize how little this is in comparison to practically anything in space?

      • You are right of course. Not about the cleaning it up; but about the probes being microscopic specs amongst the stars…
        One thistle’s worth of thistle down amongst all of the stars.
        Maybe they should broadcast Krusty the clown ads?

  5. I am a skeptic by my very nature. However, my initial response was not skepticism this time. It was “what a bore.” I hope some engineers and scientists make a good living, have a great retirement and maybe if their modern-esque, nihilist grand children manage to stave off contempt for the interests of their parents, they can vicariously take pride in what their ancestors accomplished.
    but you and I know that most people today have no respect for the sacrifices of their parents, and insufficient charity to cultivate their own children’s lives.
    The failure will not be a technological or scientific one. It will be sociopolitical. How will a Mad-Max world comprehend man-made probe telecom from other stars?
    I just finished my tax filing. I am entitled to feeling grim.

    • Nihilistic – that religious theme again.
      Has nothing to do with live on earth: no god is entitled to help us if we don’t help our selves.

    • You are mostly correct in your evaluation of our future generations. Back when WUWT was surveying weather stations, I encountered an older gentleman who had been striving for the 50 year award. With 48 years into the project, his son nixed it… not knowing there was even such an award. Papa was pissed!

  6. How about the federal govt stop spending tax dollars on scientific research. Defund NSF. Fund only a handful of research projects yearly, only those deemed important for national security or public service. Definitely not this one! This is one of the few projects on par with climate for worthlessness to taxpayers. We’re 21 Trillion in debt!!!

    • 1) what we don’t know can kill us.
      2) We study other worlds not only for their own sake but to learn more about our own. It’s hard to come to accurate conclusions with a sample size of one.
      3) The Apollo program is largely responsible for the microcomputer industry. Money spent on research of this kind isn’t wasted, it ends up driving spin offs and technological developments that provide new products and jobs. The space program has paid for itself several times over, just from the spinoffs.
      4) The Sun will die eventually, and Bad Things could happen at any time. We need to,start working on getting humanity, if not life, off of the planet and spreading out a bit for redundancy’s sake.

      • Well I think the Apollo program had already reached the moon without any microprocessor chips on board. My Subaru has more computing power that the Apollo Capsule.

    • Well most of this money run down the drain with wars that in the end turned out to be religious wars. May I say that or is there again that taboo of telling unspeakable truths.

    • In which case the U.S. would end up like Venezuela. Aside from the fact that this is a private, not government, project, this kind of work helps to stimulate an economy, which is what we need to pay off the debt. The only way that we can solve our debt problem is to cut the social programs that generated it, so that we don’t get further into the hole, and then stimulate the economy as much as possible to help,pay it off.

      • Is there any evidence that govt spending on science actually stimulates the economy?
        The claims that NASA has done so have been thoroughly refuted. At best NASA spending accelerated developments that were already in the works by a few months. Which has to be balanced against the fact that increased taxes slow the economy.

      • The economy doesn’t need stimulating. It just needs government to get out of the way of private enterprise, and stop giving away free stuff paid for with money they stole from somebody else.

      • And he’s free to spend his private money as he chooses. So let him get on with it.
        I’ll watch from my front verandah.

  7. what if this 0.2 lightspeed probe hits a planet inhabited by an advanced civilization of peaceful cockroaches? (Which would of course be the ultimate soocialist society.)
    Will the Alpha Cockroachians object to this act of willful violence from a backward culture 25 Trillion miles away, a culture they observed to use nuclear weapons on its own people?
    Will they come attack us to preempt our next attack with one of those nuclear devices?
    I wonder if Hawking has considered he might spark an interstellar war? A war where we would have to send some banned DDT, or a can of Raid at sublight speed again, to a planet of super intelligent cockroaches.
    /Sarc, hey, It could happen. Just like an ECS of 3+ C /doubling CO2 could happen.

    • The craft can not hit anything at all at 0.2c, even a single grain of dust, maybe even a single molecule or it will blow up something like a small nuclear explosion.
      Even a deflector panel in front would experience the same type of explosion so some not-invented force shield that avoids any contact at all with other matter is required to travel at these speeds.

    • Recently Hawking said that he thought Earth would fair badly from an alien visit. So now he wants to advertise where we live?

    • This is awesome! I extend the idea by suggesting that the intelli-roaches incorrectly assume that humans are tiny, because, hey, they’re tiny too and the micro satellite is tiny, so they inevitably fall victim to the myopia of unchallenged expectations. When they man their starships and cross the galaxy to confront us, they are surprised by our orbital defense network, which naturally consists of a passive array of inert debris…err…micro-missiles. When their fleet is decimated upon orbital entry, they sue for peace, only to find out that we didn’t even realize they were there to begin with…
      I’m sensing a Douglas Adams style novel here…

  8. this is one of those projects that rightly sends humanitarian groups into orbit, figuratively.
    $100 million pissed away into interstellar space for no return of anything?
    How many hospitals, farms, wat e r sanitation sites would $100 million fund in Sub-Sahara Africa?
    But then we see rich Billionaires building custom-built $300 Million USD yachts, and it is all meaningless.

      • Exactly. The reality is that government funded scientific research and space exploration has had economic returns many times greater than the costs. Certainly there are a lot of good arguments against government spending in many areas, but other than ignorance and apathy, there are no arguments against government funded scientific research.

      • So easily refuted.
        no, Columbus was hoping to strike it rich by finding a shorter and/or easier path to Orient trading.
        I can deal with Spanish-Italian old World greed instincts. It is what Western-style capitalism is — greed that finds new economic development that propels innovation and everyman forward. With wealth we can afford to Save the Environment. Poverty ends up despoiling the environment. Wealth is good.

      • fyi – this is what financed the voyage to the new world that promised gold and slaves:
        ferdy & isabella’s father confessor, torquemada, was, essentially, CEO of the biggest business of the day.
        “On 3 August 1492 his expedition departed and arrived in what is now known as Watling Island on 12 October. He named it San Salvador, after Jesus the Savior.[84] He returned the next year and presented his findings to the monarchs, bringing natives and gold under a hero’s welcome.”
        gold and slaves – same as it ever was…

      • joelobryan on April 12, 2016 at 10:37 pm
        So easily refuted.
        no, Columbus was hoping to strike it rich by finding a shorter and/or easier path to Orient trading.
        I can deal with Spanish-Italian old World greed instincts. It is what Western-style capitalism is — greed that finds new economic development that propels innovation and everyman forward. With wealth we can afford to Save the Environment. Poverty ends up despoiling the environment. Wealth is good.
        – parked at accounts in panama –
        and by the way: the post says clear that money is non of our business – it stems of private enterprise.

      • Yehudi, the government doesn’t have any funds. They are in debt also up to their eyeballs with all the free stuff they have given people and promised to others, which they stole from otherwise free men; and all to buy votes.
        Private enterprise does far more productive research than governments do.

      • Yes and as a consequence, Europe experienced for the first time an era of permanent inflation, as the consumer price index went up by a factor of six in about 75 years.
        They took all of that wealth of meso-America back to Europe only to discover there wasn’t anything more available to buy with all of that new money, so they just raised the price of everything. (except in England).

    • In either case, you are wrong. Money is not compressed and used to make the spacecraft, nor is it laminated into a billionaire’s yacht. In both cases the money is spent to pay salaries, purchase material, and build facilities – employing many (non-governmental) people in the process.
      You might recall that a few years ago Congress passed a “luxury tax” on yachts. It almost destroyed the U.S. yacht-building industry and cost several thousand people their jobs.
      The best way to help the poor is not by giving them money, nor by subsidizing them on a dole. It’s by creating jobs.

      • I agree that the best way to help the poor is by creating jobs.
        However if you want to create jobs, the absolute worst way to do that is by turning to govt.
        For every job created by govt spending, 2 to 3 are destroyed by taxes.

      • MarkW: “For every job created by govt spending, 2 to 3 are destroyed by taxes.”
        I wonder how that can be true unless govt created jobs paid 2 to 3 times as much as the jobs they wiped out. Which was not the case in the days of the WPA. And one would think at the very least we would have to distinguish between different taxes, as between investment tax credits and windfall taxes. –AGF

      • agfosterjr:
        That’s do to inefficiency. Govt spending is targeted towards whatever will best benefit the politicians in charge.
        When companies spend their own money, they target it towards anything that will best benefit the company.
        The latter always results in more economic growth.

    • Or as Jeremy Clarkson would say. “how many baby incubators would that fund. Think of the humanity.
      Mostly Joelobryan, what you get with your thinking is more people who need more funding who beget more people who need more funding and all of a sudden you get the third world right here at home.

    • but it returns nothing. no data. no telemetry from deep space. gone forver. like burning paper money on a fire.
      they might as well put $100 million in small bills on a firepit and roast Smores. At least that would deliver some warmth and a tasty treat.

      • Hardly. This is how engineering tests always go. I rather imagine that there will be LOTS of data transmitted back, even if just on spacecraft health and the local environment.

      • According to the scientific proposal in the previous post, the system is scalable – even if the very smallest probes are nothing more than an interstellar sputnik, broadcasting “hello world” messages, the success of a small scale test might encourage scaling up the system to launch more useful payloads.

    • I smile. Such a “test” requires functional performance equivalent to an anti-satellite weapon. No one will permit such a “test” to occur without international concurrence.

      • BINGO!
        Billion Watt lasers would be dandy weapons… so expect a lot of government and military interest in controlling what gets done…

  9. I’m delighted to see the private sector investing in projects like this.
    Public-sector funding of science has become an incredible waste of taxpayer money as we’ve seen with CAGW. It invites corruption to garner more public-funded grants and leads to bogus government policies that decrease our standards of living and actually stops or curtails scientific advancement.
    Just let the free-market decide who gets funding for their scientific research projects.
    To attract the brightest minds, the best scientists will be employed and/or funded by large corporations and scientists will negotiate contracts to allow basic research on projects not directly related to a company’s area of business expertise.
    When the CAGW hypothesis crashes and burns, hopefully this will lead to massive changes in public-funded scientific research system. The current public-funded research system is fatally flawed, corrupt and is destroying the world economy. It wastes $trillions on bogus research grants and in compliance costs of implementing bogus and insanely expensive government policies that are based on the flawed science, created from a fatally flawed public-sector research grant system.

  10. I do not understand how the probe will/could have a transmitter powerful enough to reach 4.5 light years. I full realize that advances in miniaturization of electronics have gone far, but the wattage involved seems to not be plausible.

    • It really doesn’t take a large wattage to send a signal a long way in space. Even less if one uses a laser transmitter and a very directional link can be maintained. This also has the advantaged that laser transmission packages can be miniaturized to single chip packages. Keeping it pointed to Earth and having a sensitive enough receiver to discern the signal, now that may be more of a challenge.

      • Owen, you clearly don’t understand the Physics of laser beam propagation.
        The retro-reflectors that the Apollo Program placed on the moon send back signals that are transmitted by very large optics telescopes, in order to get a signal back from a quarter million miles. These nano sails would not be able to carry such optics.

    • I always wondered about the potential energy changes in a gravity well. There you are on the transporter pad of the starship, nice and warm at 37C, 600km above the planet, The next you are sitting on the surface of the planet at 37C. Where did the 600km of potential energy go? m*g*delta h is serious energy added/missing from the system. Does the subject burst into flames upon arrival?

  11. We need to name this thing!!!!!!
    Star Hopper
    Light Kite
    Utopian Turtletop
    The Edsel
    The James A. Garfield
    The William Henry Harrison
    The Putin
    Paint Your Wagon
    Alien Invasion
    Light Saber
    The Tush Push
    Sunny Bunny
    Come On! Let’s come up with a name!!!!!!
    Eugene WR Gallun

  12. In the understanding of the EU there should be at least 2% of GOP for R&D incl. education.
    No country gets near 1.8%.
    Leaves zero for public sharing, spreading.
    It’s good to hear fundamental research is – as the word says – fundamental for our future.
    Thanks for the Info – Hans

  13. instead of squandering their budget, replicating climate work already being performed by other government agencies.

    Strange to see that opinion here, where the casual observer might misconstrue as a stronghold of the opinion that climate science is in need of replicating.
    Good to see trust in climate science also affirmed.

  14. Just as a note folks, the engineering hurdles here are significant. Some challenges to overcome:
    * How to power, generate, and collimate a 100 GWatt laser beam. (And how to do it without getting people worried about potential military uses.)
    * How to build a light sail tough enough to withstand an interstellar voyage.
    * How to get the data back to Earth over a multi-light-year distance.
    * How to power the craft.
    *How to navigate it.
    * the development of ultra-light yet hyper-reliable, or self-repairing, instruments that can last for 20 years or more.
    * The development of an AI (and an ultra-light computer to run it) that can run, repair, and direct an interstellar probe when the nearest source of advice is 6 years (round trip) away.

    • Some of those problems have already been sorted…
      Power once it’s up to speed…we’re sailing, a bit of solar while we’ve got a star nearby plus maybe a mini nuke
      Navigation……pop in a star map with a few reference stars. Shouldn’t be difficult
      Add a routine for what to do when you run into a bit of gravity.
      The sail’s problems won’t be interstellar but while the probe is trying to get past the clutter of our solar system
      Reliability ? Some of the gear we’ve sent out already is operating way past predicted lifetimes so we’re doing alright there.
      Data transfer a problem but probably not insurmountable. We are getting better at this sort of thing.
      Perhaps pop a relay transmitter or two out in helpful positions.
      The 100 billion watt light globe will be interesting though.
      130,000,000 horsepower if it’s US billions.
      Researchers have managed 2 trillion watts [pettawatts apparently] though only for a trillionth of a second
      You can get 526 hp out of the top of the range new Mustang.

        “Hansens dreaded 400,000 Hiroshima bombs per day works out to 0.6 watts per square metre”
        The Hiroshima bomb was “only” 15 kilotons, or 0.015 megatons.
        0.015 megatons x 1.16×10^9 kWh/megaton = 1.75×10^7 kWh
        or 17 million kWh for the Hiroshima blast.
        100 billion watts for just ten minutes, is it?
        100,000,000,000 * 6000 seconds =
        600,000,000,000,000 kWs = 166,666,666,666.7 kWh
        = 9,803.9 Hiroshimas in ten minutes
        and on the sail- 100 gigawatts per square meter, if you’re focused
        and 9803.9 Hiroshimas in 10 minutes is
        1,411,764.7 Hiroshimas per day
        (up to the reader to double check the math)

  15. Sounds idiotic, but not as idiotic as his claim that man caused global warming is “one of a greatest threats posed to the future of human-kind and the world”.

  16. One of my all time favourite short stories is Sunjammer, by Arthur C Clarke. It was written in the 1960s and the first (I think) to feature ligh sails, in this case in a race.
    If this ever gets built, I hope they call it the “Arthur C Clarke”.
    The launch laser was a feature in The Mote In God’s Eye, which someone has mentioned above. Another good read.
    I wonder how fast you could really get a sun only powered craft to go? Especially if you took it in towards the Sun first to get a good push off?
    Where would you put the laser? On Earth you would have to cope with rotation, clouds and atmospheric distortion. In space, there would be the costs of getting it up there etc.
    However, if someone ever managed to build a mega laser in space, they would then be able to ask for ” contributions” from everyone on Earth below. After all, we really would want to make sure it pointed in the right direction….

    • It would have to be on something rather massive, as it should experience a recoil from the photons it is pushing out of a similar force as the spacecraft. Wouldn’t want to have to go chase down the laser at 0.1% of C after every launch.

  17. The detail that caught my eye was the “100 billion watt laser” . Is this possible ? Is it gas, dye or solid state?
    Will Livermore be involved , using their laser fusion experience (am I right in associating them with fusion expts?) or do the Russians have an equivalent to Lawrence Livermore with equal or superior capability .
    Is it possible that the 100 billion watt laser is such a significant part of the research programme that the skills , innnovation and materials science development required to produce one will spin off many unexpected novelties in products and scientific understanding. The end , the space vehicle , becomes then just an excuse for doing some exciting physics and materials science which the current obsession with climate science has almost extinguished in some quarters.
    (But not quite extinguished because at GE Global research they have apparently prototyped a very efficient gas turbine working with super -critical (wait for it) CO2).

    • Probably solid state / semiconductor.
      According to a detailed proposal referenced here, solid state arrays are really scalable. You can synchronise thousands of small lasers by feeding them from a seed laser, which keeps all the individual units in the array in phase with each other – effectively creating one large laser beam. In addition I’m pretty sure I remember reading you can get really impressive power conversion efficiencies out of semiconductor lasers when you supercool them.

      • Yep. Master Oscillator Power Amplifier (MOPA). Works just fine so long as you can make sure the beam paths to the array elements are equal and constant to a fraction of a wavelength. (No disturbances due to thermal coefficient of expansion in the beam channel, be it open cavity or optical fiber.)
        Semiconductor lasers are intermittent devices because they are typically at 30-35% quantum efficiency. (Best quantum efficiency of all time was the carbon monoxide infrared laser at ~50%.) For every watt of beam output, there are 2 watts of thermal waste. A kilowatt here and a kilowatt there, and pretty soon you are talking about REAL power. Either you wait between shots for your laser to cool down, or you invest in active cooling technology.
        Nobody is talking about the safety hazards of stray laser light. Get a few raw milliwatts right into your pupil and find out how much fun it is. Nor is anyone commenting on the significant difficulty in getting a cloud-free line-of-sight. (But I forget: with a laser of this magnitude, you can simply drill a hole through any passing cloud.) Not easy. There was a reason why the Airborne Laser operated in the stratosphere: no clouds to worry about.
        People, using lasers of this magnitude for propulsion is about as realistic as talking about pushing go-karts with hand grenades. You can do it, but….wow!

  18. That’s the problem with all you sciency tekological people.
    All you do is kriticize and make problems whot mess up the glow when wots really obvius.
    When the rest of us wot weally care and feel about stuff you shud aks us, and we will tell youse all about that data whotsit thingy stuff.
    My grandmuder wot was watching “Survivor” when I aksed her said whot anybody nose the anser. So if my gran nose, why don youse?
    She said you shud just yewse an extension cord.
    So there to all you deniey sciency tipes.

    • Screw that, what happens when the laser knocks itself out of orbit or sends itself out into space with the back thrust of its own beam? Newton’s laws still apply. If that photon has momentum, then it must have imparted an equal and opposite momentum on the satellite. Whether the satellite crashes to Earth or goes on an interstellar joyride of its own would depend largely on the direction that momentum was imparted.

      • Put a set of them in orbit. Each fires when on the side of earth facing the “kite”. They slow for 1/4 orbit then accellerate for 1/4. Net no change. Then 1/2 orbit to rest before the next turn…
        Power per laser can be much smaller than total delivered by combined photons, though even 100 of them would have each one being large. Would need nuclear power on orbit to work… At 10^11 W / 1000 W/m^2 it would take 10^8 m^2 of sun. Or at 10% conversion sun to beam, a 1000 square km… That’s a lot to build and put on orbit…
        Or I suppose we could send power up via microwave beam… just need to keep the birds and planes out of that arc of the sky… a billion Watts of microwaves can really cook your goose… Then again, 200 satellites (only half shining at a time) each with a 1000 MW nuclear plant, all on orbit night mess up your day too, eventually…

    • And these billion Watt lasers will be pushing against what exactly, to accelerate the kite sail ??

  19. As a very occasional poster here at WUWT I’m a bit disappointed by some of the posts above. If Kennedy had listened to some of you guys maybe he’d have called the whole Moon shot off!
    Yes this is uncharted territory with enormous technical challenges but are we human beings or not? This program can only advance our scientific and technical expertise. If someone other than Government wants to stump up the money and they’re serious about it, why not go for it? As others have rightly pointed out, the Space Program has always provided technological payoffs so why would this be any different? Does anyone imagine Hawking and Milner haven’t at least done some basic ground-work here? That instead they just tossed the proposal out there to liven up a quiet news day?
    Like the early days of Sputnik and Mercury, this will only be the first baby step in a journey to the stars. At $100m I’d say we shouldn’t expect more than a Sputnik. But I bet even now there are Company CEOs and scientists thinking “Man, I’d love to get us involved in this”. It might fail or it might be amazing. But man, what a journey it will be! I commend Hawking and Milner and I hope I’m around long enough to see it become reality.

    • If dumb ideas can’t stand a little ridicule, then did they ever stand a chance in the first place?

      • “Space travel is bunk.” – Sir Harold Spencer Jones, Astronomer Royal of Britain, two weeks before the launch of Sputnik, 1957.

    • If somebody proposed getting to the moon on a laser beam, he would have been right to call it off. People have been toying with this since the invention of the laser in 1961. In 1977, I read a NASA report that seriously considered a ground laser array of over 100 MW output beam power, to boost launch vehicles. It premised carbon dioxide laser technology, about at the “steam engine” end of the laser technology sophistication spectrum. Hasn’t happened yet and likely never to happen. Laser space propulsion is rather like commercial fusion power, always 20 years in the future!

  20. “A 100 billion-watt laser-powered light beam would accelerate a “nanocraft” – something weighing little more than a sheet of paper and driven by a sail not much bigger than a child’s kite, fashioned from fabric only a few hundred atoms in thickness ”
    Am I the only one to see a problem with a 100 billion watts of laser light focused on an area the size of a child’s kite?

  21. Who is watching over Stephen’ medication these days.
    He seems to be straying further and further from reality.

    • The problem is the media report this idea as if it is already done and sorted and we only need wait for the launch.
      Personally all efforts should be going towards Mars and Europa, Jupiter’s moon that has liquid water. The best chance we have of finding life is there.
      Mars can be colonised and maybe eventually the atmosphere altered and then as a result terraformed.
      There are too many hodgepodge missions, some global focus on space exploration please. The ESA landing on the comet, how that was a Mission with real data brought back.
      Mars Rover also a solid mission.
      We need to get probes on Europa and Scientists on mars.
      Who knows even build an underground complex on the moon, seeing as we can get equipment there in a days’ travel. Now that would be an accomplishment.
      always looking further and further afield to feed intellectualism, there is much to be discovered on earth still, let along the solar system.

    • He always was beyond reality Obvious feature od a simple charlatan like bunch of others you can see on all these TV “science” channels…

  22. Why on earth is all our space funding not going into our own solar system? We know very little about it.
    I hear lots of these ideas, another is a submarine put in Europa’s oceans beneath the ice. That would be worth it!!

    • The original proposal (referenced here) suggests that the launcher would also be useful for accelerating much larger payloads on interplanetary missions. You only need to go featherweight if you want to send a payload to another star system in a reasonable time.

      • As always Eric, the issue is getting the payloads into space, that is where we have issues as we have to build larger payloads in space.
        IMO, we can’t build a proper manned mars scientific mission craft on earth, it has to be built in space, as we are talking of what spending a long time there before returning, including a habitat and such as it is not feasible to carry all of your supplies with you.
        Yes this idea about the nearest star is interesting but I suspect we are going to learn very little about the star, and we are lets be honest, we need to understand our own star better.
        I just think it is a distraction. We have 7 planets to investigate more in-depth as well as our star.
        Getting scientists on other planets should be the priority, our remote studies are too limited. We need good scientists on the ground to give missions the flexibility needed for such missions.
        We cant focus on everything due to cost. Priority should be given to manned missions to Mars and investigating places like Europa.
        Though I do agree, we always need better propulsion, not a bad thing.

    • “Our space funding?” As far as I can determine this is a privately funded proposal.

  23. Call me Mr Suspicious, but this sounds like an excuse to build a 100 billion Watt laser without being accused of Star Wars style escalation to me.

  24. We can’t supply clean water to Flint. Raw sewage overflows in every major city. And we spend money on this stuff?

    • There was clean water in Flint, until someone at the local authority decided to save some money on water treatment. Now the entire water supply system needs to be replaced.

  25. Will this 100 billion watt laser be powered by Solar or wind ? Hawkings is CAGW follower, don’t ya know !!

    • Sure, first you gots to build a Dyson sphere and lines the inside with solar panels…(/sarc – my English is usually a tad better when I am serious)

  26. So, what good is it to go there other than we could do it? The postage stamp sized craft won’t be able to send anything back. I mean it cool and all but I’d rather go to mars or the moons of Jupiter first.

  27. Yes, it would be nice to get NASA involved is this. Turn their attention from idiotic climate forecasting fear mongering stuff to nonsensical deep space travel stuff. It would be a step up.

  28. OK, lets look at the math. V= (f X t )/m where V is .2C and mass is, say, 10g. Then
    6×10^4km/sec = (f x t)/10g or
    10g (6×10^4km)/sec = f x t …Oops, my calculator just overflowed.
    Somebody want to help out here?

  29. Government research is critical to America’s future. It pays back billions of dollars on every dollar spent.
    ‘In this study funded with an $856,000 NSF grant, three captive mountain lions were taught to use a treadmill. It took eight months of training before the cats were “comfortable on the treadmill.”
    “People just didn’t believe you could get a mountain lion on a treadmill, and it took me three years to find a facility that was willing to try,” said one of the project’s key researchers.’

  30. This sounds like a neat idea. I wonder how it will send intact data back and to what receiver? Radio electromagnetic waves travel at the speed of light (duh, cuz they are light) which would be faster than its flight speed. Given that advantage, it will somehow need to keep track of its path to beam that radio wave back (or will it do that in all directions?) in a way that will preserve important information in an interpretative format through our non-vacuum atmosphere (think Wolfman Jack coming in and going out on your farm radio many miles away from a tower). Maybe they will be able to beam it back to an orbiting satellite that is sitting in an outer orbit?
    Way cool. You go Steven (that said you need to rethink Climate Change – it isn’t human caused but it is threatening).

  31. Assuming such craft manage to learn anything useful, how exactly are they planning on getting that info back to Earth?
    The craft is going too fast to use the stars gravity to slingshot it back.
    The craft lacks a radio of any kind, much less one with enough power to cross the light years between the earth and the nearest stars.

  32. Well it’s privately which means they ain’t spending your dough or mine. So what’s the complaint?

    • a directed energy weapon in orbit with 100,000,000,000 watts of powah – what’s to complain about?
      your child don’t need no freakin kite anyway, right?

    • I don’t see anyone complaining.
      However if it’s still a free country, so we are permitted to ridicule those things we find ridiculous.

  33. Alchemy was to Newton as AGW (and now interstellar travel) is to Hawking. Great minds, but not great in all ways.

    • In Newton’s defense, in his day, there was no evidence that alchemy was wrong. It was the best explanation they had of how chemistry worked.
      In fact it was the alchemists, their experiments and notes that led to the development of the science now known as chemistry.
      Just because they were wrong, doesn’t mean they were stupid.

      • Since we now regularly turn one element into another with gadgets from nuclear reactors to neutron canons, I’d assert that we do alchemy all the time… So Newton just didn’t have the right tools, nor realize that radioactive gold might be problematic and expensive…
        IMHO, the alchemists were not wrong, and the result is nuclear power today, not just chemistry.

    • Wow, that’s gonna take a lot of Solar panels to generate all that wattage !! Can anybody do the calculations ?? My calculator kept crashing !

      • Marcus April 13, 2016 at 10:11 am
        Marcus they are talking about some how gradually storing up all the power for the laser.
        We can’t ever store the existing energy that wind turbines and solar panels are creating. I wish them well. It would be great if they could solve energy storage problem. That would be a fantastic spin off tech.

      • ..Mark, how big would the battery have to be to store 100,000,000,000 watts of power in one spot ?? And how long would it take to charge using Solar panels ??

      • I did it up above. No calculator needed. Works out to about 1000 square km.
        (scientific notation and growing up using a slide rule is why I rarely use a calculator)

    • The laser launching system stays HERE; or more probably, on the Far Side of the Moon. (That way, the laser launching cannon cannot be aimed directly at the Earth.) Or perhaps, built on some fairly substantial asteroids, because the light energy of the laser IS a propulsion system.

  34. Looks like a Trojan Horse to me …nice anti-satellite weapon ?
    “Hiding” in plain sight… a bright orange “rescue chamber” on the Halibut ?

    • Nah. Only “weapons of mass destruction,” which is a euphemism for nuclear weapons. And even then, it does not prohibit the passage of ICBM re-entry vehicles carrying nuclear devices.
      Actually, space is a great place for nuclear weapons, since there is zero probability that anyone would be injured by their use (excepting perhaps a space station crew flying too close to the war zone). Well, at least directly. Some problems with consequences of electromagnetic pulse, I will admit. And excitation of the Van Allen belt. War is hell, but space war is death on cell phones. (Should I have tripped a “sarc” flag?)

  35. These space stories on WUWT reveals a philosophical issue with Anthony Watts’ approach to this site …
    The worldview which we are being introduced to here is that only climate science is controversial. Anthony had a fantastic opportunity here to convey crucial lessons which span numerous speculative scientific disciplines, which are simply on good display in the climate sciences.
    What he has opted to do instead is to place faith in all disciplines he is not personally familiar with.
    This leaves completely open the real need:
    A site which educates the public on ALL of the scientific controversies.
    Apparently, this work is now left to somebody else and I guess some other site.

    • paradigmsareconstructed April 13, 2016 at 12:29 pm
      Actually Anthony has put up an interesting article. People have commented, asked questions and are probably going to be doing some reading on the subject. What is your problem with that?

    • You must be a newby on WUWT. This site puts up all manner of scientific developments. He doesn’t spoonfeed his readers like you are apparently used to. Try reading many of these threads throughout. Even Stephen Hawking and his Russian collaborator could benefit from the many astute, knowledgeable comments here.

    • Well Anthony hasn’t ruled out much of anything from discussion. contrails, bigfoot; must be something else Anthony banned. Must not be that important.

  36. From the featured blurb;
    “In an unprecedented boost for interstellar travel …”
    If the (as I see it) climate con falls apart, in terms of leading to a “global government” some hyper-wealthy psychopaths can control the world through, they will attempt another con, it seems to me. I suspect an “alien invasion” con is one contingency, and that will require some way to shut up the educated folks who know damn well interstellar travel is virtually impossible.

  37. The sensible thing to do with a very large pile of money if the goal is to learn about other nearby star systems or anything else astronomical is to build a big-a** robotic observatory on the lunar far side.

    • Better to put it at one of the stable Lagrangian nodes where it can float freely. You want your telescope to have a (selectable) line of sight that is stable and fixed relative to the star field. If you are on the Moon, you will rotate 360 degrees in 30 days. (360 degrees/30 days =12 degrees/day = 0.5 degree/hour = 0.5 arcminute/minute = 0.5 arcsecond/second) Pesky to have your target drift out of the telescope field of view.

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