So, yesterday on Twitter I got to thinking about laser-launched lightsail nanoprobes:
Currently, the big idea is to launch teeny-tiny lightsail probes at neighboring stars to get a look around — current thought is that technology as it is now could handle boosting some 1 gram probes attached to 20 meter lightsails up to 20% of lightspeed.
(I’ve cued the video to a bit about how teeny the working part of the probe would be — if you’re so inclined the whole video is a long, academic discussion of the whole idea that’s pretty decent if that’s your cup of tea.)
With only a few — but even better with a huge cloud, as I briefly fantasize about elsewhere — we could get a fine look at a stellar neighbor and see if there are any planets there that would be practical targets for a generation ship to settle. Think big, I say. Best to get humanity out of this fragile little egg basket we call Earth. Not just into the rest of the Solar System, but into others if we can manage it.
But nanoprobes, good for peeking at the neighbors, could be great for raw astronomy and investigation of the nature of the universe.
The Quanta link in my lead tweet above is about theories regarding the behavior of dark matter. Imagine how useful for that and other questions we itty-bitty humans have about our gigantic universe it would be to launch a gigantic lens of nanoprobes sailing off in a couple of different directions. To fire them out of the plane of the ecliptic and out of the cloud of particles and matter the Sun drags with it through space. To shoot them toward things we want to observe at 20% of lightspeed and compare the observations with what we see when that light and radiation reaches Earth. To fire them off the other way and let them crawl back in time (effectively) to compare to past observations.
To build expanding lenses light-minutes across in interstellar space, peering deeper and more clearly into the universe than humans have ever managed before.
Take some time to really think about it. It’s a breathtaking opportunity for pure science. And pure science, practical-minded friends, pays off in the long run.
There’s been a lot of talk about the Stephen Hawking-backed “Starshot” project to propel a tiny, perhaps 20-gram laser-propelled lightsail to Alpha Centauri to beam back some up-close snapshots in the name of science.
Seems to me the major expenses are in building the lasers needed to launch them, and in developing the technology to build an itty-bitty craft like that and have it still be capable of taking decent pictures and beaming them home.
So once we’ve spent all of the worthwhile cash and effort to do that, why not get our money’s worth and maximize our chances of seeing something interesting? Build a hundred of those itty lightsails. Build a thousand. Launch them all; spread them out over the whole Centauri system. We’ll have to wait about 25 years (trip + lightspeed delay of data beamed back) after launch to see the images, so let’s make sure what we get is worth the wait!
I’m envisioning a light sail scout that folds itself into an airfoil to land and then into something like in the video to explore an alien continent…