One of the things that has always been obvious to the Wizard is that large spaceships capable of carrying many people ARE NOT going to be able to go beyond our own solar system. Show after show on the various science channels would talk about multi-generational voyages to the stars and how such ships might require ½ the energy of the sun (or some such nonsense.) Novels about such voyages such as Across the Universe by Beth Revis made for fascinating reading (see cover below.) The flaw in this thinking however, is that only “people as we know them” can explore the universe. It is intuitive on some levels that people get in a ship and start exploring. After all that is how Columbus, Magellan, Neil Armstrong and other explorers set out on their voyage of discoveries, but today is a very different time. Today is the age of artificial intelligence and tiny spaceships.
WHY TINY SPACESHIPS?
Tiny spaceships are simply about the mathematics of interstellar travel. In order to get somewhere in the unimaginable vastness of space in any reasonable amount of time, you need to achieve speeds that are a meaningful percentage of the speed of light. The speeds achieved by chemical rockets are ponderously slow and the truth is by the time such rockets get there, someone with better/newer technology would have gotten there first. This is the paradox of “he who starts latest wins the race.” The advantage of waiting starts to disappear however if you can go a goodly percentage of the speed of light. Assuming the cosmic speed limit of 186,000 miles a second still holds, newer flights can only make up so much ground.
The simple truth is that tiny spaceships weigh very little. Thus accelerating a very small mass to say 25% of the speed of light will require relatively small amounts of energy. This is the big advantage of small spaceships. They can go very fast with very little energy.
BUT WHAT IS THE CARGO OF A TINY SPACESHIP
Obviously, a tiny spaceship (say a few ounces) won’t hold very many people. Actually, it won’t hold any people at all in their current form, but with a small solar capacity to create current and a Kurzweillian created consciousness you could certainly place a very able “person” in a tiny spaceship. Add in some transmission capabilities and some “growth” instructions for when the tiny spaceship reaches an asteroid, moon or planet and you have everything you need to allow for an artificial creature to “colonize” another body in a place that is far far away.
THE GOOD NEWS IS THAT A TINY SPACESHIP MODEL IS ACTUALLY BEING CREATED
Prof. Stephen Hawking recently announced that a team has been put together to send a tiny spaceship to Alpha Centauri. This is a venture being funded by Russian tech millionaire Yuri Milner and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The video of their announcement can be seen below.
Their plan is to use a tiny square light sail to haul a small payload to our closest interstellar neighbor. The mechanism for creating acceleration is a laser that will remain locked on the sail for as long as possible (about 30 minutes). It is estimated that such a system could accelerate the craft to approximately 25% of the speed of light. Since Alpha Centauri is 5 light years away, it would only take a craft going .25C about 20 years to enter the new solar system and see what’s there. Then it would take 5 years to report back about what it found. Since the project is estimated to take 20 years to actually happen (and there are a LOT of technical problems to solve concerning guidance, payload, laser propulsion, communication, etc) this means that we might be getting our first signal from a freaking alien system in as few as 45 years (20 to launch, 20 to get there, 5 to communicate back.)
This is seriously new and amazing and the Wizard is delighted that bold thinkers have stepped forward to go where no man has ever gone.
KEY ELEMENTS OF THE VOYAGE
One of the cool things about this mission is that the craft can be updated after it is launched. The on board intelligence / software will be able to upgraded because the communications with the ship can travel at 4 times the speed of the craft (100% of the speed of light instead of 25% of the cosmic speed limit). Thus even after 15 years (a lifetime in the R& D world), new software could be sent to the ship and still get there before the ship arrives. The same principle could be done on a Mars mission if a carbon nanotube (or other such body) was first landed that was designed to exist in the atmosphere of MARS (an atmosphere that is very bad for people but not for properly designed bots.) To upgrade, just send a signal and viola the “Martians” just got smarter. The research could be done on earth and then the results simply transmitted to the red planet in 7 minutes or so.
The other aspect of this voyage that could be practiced locally is the growth feature. It only takes a tiny seed to create a mighty redwood. If done right, “building” materials should be able to be harvested from the far distant environments. These environments can be guessed and designed for. Landing a BB size “ship” on the moon and seeing it grow into a mobile communication unit would be a really cool feat of engineering. Who knows, maybe our own DNA (or our virus ancestors) were designed in just such a way on some far away alien world.
Finally communications would be key. It does us no good to learn all about the planets in our neighboring stars if we can’t learn what was discovered. The solar sail might be able to be a solar receptor and antenna for such a system. This will require lots of engineering. The good news is that the technologies can be tested locally before sending them out on their big adventure.
AN ALTERNATIVE TO LASERS AS A POWER SOURCE
The Wizard has always envisioned an orbiting particle accelerator type device that would make the tiny spaceships go round and round using magnetic systems until they reached the fraction of the speed of light that is desired. Then the ship could be aimed at the appropriate star and boom off it goes on its great voyage of discovery. If you repeated this process hundreds of times a day, you could send many duplicate ships to the same star system or send probes to multiple star systems. Given that the Milky way is only 100,000 light years across, you could explore the entire galaxy in only 200,000 years if the tiny spaceships could travel at .5 C. While this seems like a long time, it is not even as long as our species (Cro Magnon) has been roaming the earth. It would be a veritable blink of the eye in cosmic time and what an adventure it would be to get a constant stream of signals back on what was found. It would truly be new and amazing on a galactic scale. And hey if you make it to the singularity, you just might be alive when the news starts pouring in that we are not alone. I just wish I could be there for that news day.
Tiny spaceships are our destiny. Let’s get started.