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Orbital Vacations: A Trip to Alpha Cen

“And I turned away to thee, proud evening star, in the glory afar,” wrote Edgar Allan Poe as he beautifully crafted the imagery of complex emotions in the form of a star, both inaccessible. Immeasurable, and afar. Be it the books of Paul Anderson and the movies of J.J. Abrams, we have always witnessed the visualization of interstellar travel or even the substantial knowledge of farther horizons of space as something that is beyond the comprehension of present generations. The landscape of outer space is a mystery and to embark on the journey to solve it, we also move towards the search for meaning, companionship, and a multitude of unbeknownst concepts.

Alpha Centauri is the closest system of stars and exoplanets. The closest being 4.37 light-years from the sun. Till now, we have only seen its ingrained images through telescopes. There could exist another planet with a similar or highly differential life form somewhere amongst that cluster. The knowledge we have right now is constructed in terms of space travel, the farthest we have been is through Voyager 1, whose result we await in about 40,000 years. But is it really possible to surpass this knowledge and venture into something so ambiguous and unknown?

It’s important to note that interstellar travel is technically possible and there’s no law of physics that outright forbids it. At present NASA’s pioneer missions like the Voyager and New Horizons are on their long outward journey but the problem is that these interstellar probes are not going anywhere fast and do not project any specific trajectory of their path. But if they were headed towards Alpha Cen, they would probably reach there in 80,000 years, that too only if their nuclear batteries don’t give out. From a future perspective, Antimatter is the most plausible option for space travel. This mirror matter is made up of positrons with a unique characteristic of annihilation, which allows it to convert mass into energy. So an antimatter rocket would be for a phenomenal speed and would take 12 years of human life to reach Kepler 452B, speculated to be another Earth-like planet, due to its habitable distance from its sun and possibilities of life. But here’s a twist, because of time dilation at a speed that can be higher than that of light, 1500 years would have passed on the Earth.

Now, if human extinction was upon our head and we needed a method of interstellar travel that is equipped with present technologies and doesn’t take time to complete its mission, breakthrough star shot is the most plausible answer. The basic premise of Breakthrough Starshot is to design a lightsail-equipped nanocraft and to give it a powerful push, and let it zip off to Proxima Centauri, a star of Alpha Centauri, at more than 130 million mph (216 million km/h). One possible way to do that is borrow a tool pirates used to help them plunder the seven seas: sails. The nanocraft would propel with the help of the lightsails that would, unlike the conventional sails that catch winds, would catch energy. In the 1960s, HUngarian astrophysicist Gyorgy Marx pushed the idea further by pondering whether a directed beam of energy, rather than sunlight, could be used to propel such a spacecraft. This form of energy was then decided to be laser, that too 100 gigawatts are needed to effectively push the spacecraft.

100 Gigawatts of lasers means the entire energy output of all the nuclear reactors in the United States operating at the same time, right next to each other and sending 100% of their energy without any losses. This is just a model, if we are to accept this option of interstellar travel, different countries would have to chip in to make it a success. The structure of the nanocraft too, should weigh minimal, preferably just 1 gm, that’s the weight of a paper clip, this problem poses a massive engineering challenge, but again it’s not scientifically impossible, also highlighting that the possibility of sending more than one spacecraft at a time and coordinating their functionality.

At present, the breakthrough starshot is already a $100 million research and development program, aiming to establish proof of concept for a nanocraft. This new scientific initiative is committed to international collaboration, open access and open data. It aims to represent all of humanity as one world, stepping out into the galaxy within a generation.

The breakthrough starshot has the potential of being a successful mode of interstellar travel and at the least, worth a try. By the main question, would we agree to spend a huge amount of money on a potentially successful project? Or a more important one, would the world come together on the ground of space exploration without tying up in politics and the need to overcome each other?

Written by Saachi Singh

Illustrated by Disha Kariwal

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