Today at Berkeley Lab

Are We Alone in the Universe? Starshot’s Chief Engineer Gives Lab Talk on Oct. 13

— By Jeff Miller

Laser cannons. Reflective sails. Nanocraft. If these all sound like plot points in the next James Bond fantasy thriller, think again.  They are, in fact, bullet points for “Breakthrough Starshot,” an ambitious plan to use tiny, light-propelled “star chips” to fly by Alpha Centauri, our nearest star system, after a 20-year journey. And on October 13 at noon in the Building 50 Auditorium, Pete Klupar, Starshot’s Chief of Engineering, will be explaining to a Berkeley Lab audience how it can help.

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Klupar, former Director of Engineering at NASA’s Ames Research Center, acknowledges that the whole idea of sending thousands of wafer-sized chips connected to four-meter square laser sails through interstellar space — at 60,000 kilometers per second — sounds, well, crazy. “When reasonable people first hear about Starshot, they think we are taking advantage of medical marijuana.” But the aerospace veteran insists, “I’ve spent 18 months studying this and while there are big challenges, there are truly no showstoppers. The only real question is the price tag.”

Before tallying up the potential costs – likely comparable to CERN’s $10 billion budget to build and operate the Large Hadron Collider – and the many technological and political hurdles, there are the more immediate questions of why and who.

The “why” is simple, rooted as it is in the mesmerizing effect of the stars and galaxies upon the human imagination.  Call it an origins quest, or as Klupar and others have stated, “We need to know if we are the Universe’s only child.”

The “who” is a different story, a constellation of stellar intellects and headline-making entrepreneurs, including Stephen Hawking, Mark Zuckerberg, and Yuri Milner, who have coalesced into what it known as the Breakthrough Foundation. Breakthrough both acknowledges great science and sponsors adventurous initiatives, one of which is Starshot. Seeded with an initial $100 million from Milner, Starshot’s stated goal is to demonstrate “proof of concept” for a new technology (starting with test runs in our solar system first) and attract the kind of attention and funding that will spark a fundamental shift in the human exploration of the universe, minus the astronauts.

kluparKlupar views the Berkeley Lab audience as a prime source of technical insight. “Our two biggest problems right now are the sails and the laser array,” he says. The sails will require testing a layer of metamaterials that become a perfect reflector, while the laser array demands not only one square kilometer of land in a high-altitude corner of the world, but an unprecedented assembly that, depending on different variables, could number anywhere from 50,000 to five million components, pulsing into space as one powerful beam of light onto the individual sails.

This is not to mention all the challenges associated with launching a mothership carrying thousands of nanocraft into orbit, and capturing and retrieving data from the space chips five years after it has been sent back from deep space — assuming the nanocraft have avoided any collisions with interstellar dust along the way. Indeed, the Starshot website has a section devoted to its tech challenges, which Klupar considers the perfect starting point for any Berkeley Lab scientist intrigued by an intoxicating mix of mundane and daring.

“In one sense, Starshot is straightforward engineering. There are problems, and you solve them. But then you realize why just stop at Mars when you can travel to other star systems and look for Earth-like planets? That’s when it starts to get very, very exciting.”