Artist's impression of the laser-powered sailcraft that could once day be sent to Alpha Centauri. Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives

A Laser-Powered Spacecraft is Heading to Alpha Centauri—10 Things To Keep In Mind

Scientists intend to use up to 100 million lasers to power the craft.

A group of scientists from the Breakthrough Starshot program announced an ambitious project to explore interstellar space using a compact space sailing ship powered by laser propulsion. Objective: to get to the nearest neighbor of the solar system – Alpha Centauri.


The Breakthrough Initiatives program was established in 2015 to focus on the search for life in the universe. One of the main initiatives is the Starshot project, which aims to reduce the time needed for interstellar travel. With the current technologies and methods, it would take more than 100 years to reach even the nearest star.

Everything you need to know about how we can reach Alpha Centauri using 100 million lasers

1. Earlier this month, scientists from the program recently revealed a new concept that could send a probe to Alpha Centauri in only 20 years.

2. The concept of the lightsail-equipped nanocraft (called StarChip) includes a nanoprobe measuring 3.5 by 3.5 centimeters and weighing as much as one gram.

3. It will be equipped with sensors, antennas, a camera, and accelerators. All this will be connected to a massive solar sail, imagined being at least four by four meters. It will be just 100 nanometers thick and it will also weigh about a gram.

Artist's impression of the ground-based laser-system that will accelerate the craft towards Alpha Centauri. Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives
Artist’s impression of the ground-based laser-system that will accelerate the craft towards Alpha Centauri. Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives

4. Sails similar to this concept already exist and have been launched in space in recent decades but scientists from the Breakthrough Starshot program envision a new method of acceleration – through a giant network of laser systems.

5. The main issues with this concept are power and costs. Estimations suggest that in order for the nanoprobe to reach the optimal speed, we would need about 100 gigawatts.

6. When we take into account that the largest and most powerful batteries nowadays have 100 times less energy, getting that power appears to be almost impossible. The proposed plans and estimates include the use of more than 100 million lasers at the same time if we are to reach this energy.

7. Then, we have the preliminary cost estimates. A system with 100 million lasers would cost about eight billion dollars just to be created. Then, the cost of acceleration through the 20 years will add another six billion as a minimum.

The best image of Alpha Centauri A and B to date. Credit: NASA
The best image of Alpha Centauri A and B to date. Credit: NASA

8. One of the surmountable problems is the influence of Earth’s atmosphere, which will distort the outgoing laser beam. Scientists have a solution and plan to send a small satellite in orbit that will send a laser towards the surface. This will help measure the atmospheric-induced distortion in order to adjust the direction of the nanocraft to perfection.

9. Once the laser-powered probe reaches Alpha Centauri, it will take pictures and collect data and measurements. Those will be transmitted back to Earth and should reach astronomers in about 5 years.

10. It should be noted that nothing has been developed at this point. It is still only a concept. We mentioned the preliminary cost estimations and it is clear that scientists need to provide real test results in order to get even a fraction of this funding. What they now plan to do are controlled laboratory experiments.


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Sources:

ANU College of Science. (n.d.). Scientists lead ambitious study to reach infinity and beyond.
Bandutunga, C. P., Sibley, P. G., Ireland, M. J., & Ward, R. L. (2021, April 12). Photonic solution to phase sensing and control for light-based interstellar propulsion. JOSA B.
HARRISON, R. (n.d.). ANU looks to reach Alpha Centauri with laser propulsion. Spaceaustralia.
Parks , J. (n.d.). Breakthrough Starshot: A voyage to the stars within our lifetimes. Astronomy.com.
Weaver, M. (n.d.). ANU scientists choose to accept mission to go light-years and beyond. About Regional.

Written by Vladislav Tchakarov

Hello, my name is Vladislav and I am glad to have you here on Curiosmos. My experience as a freelance writer began in 2018 but I have been part of the Curiosmos family since mid-2020. As a history student, I have a strong passion for history and science, and the opportunity to research and write in this field on a daily basis is a dream come true.

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