A $100-million startup shares incredible plan to propel spacecraft with giant lasers

Breakthrough Starshot is moving ahead with an audacious vision for space exploration.

  • The Breakthrough Starshot initiative was co-founded by Stephen Hawking.
  • The project raised $100 million and is moving ahead with extensive research.
  • The goal of Starshot is to send tiny "StarChip" spacecraft to explore neighboring star systems.

Imagine paper-thin nano-spacecraft being propelled through space at 134 million mph by super-powerful lasers, brighter than the sun. They would also be strong enough to ignite entire cities in minutes, if turned back towards Earth. Where are the spaceships headed? Towards a potential new habitat for humanity in the nearby star system Alpha Centauri, which is just about 25.7 trillion miles away. Now imagine no more - this is not science fiction but an actual project gathering steam.

The Breakthrough Starshot initiative raised $100 million for research from funders like the Russian-American billionaire Yuri Milner and a host of Silicon Valley investors. Notably, the Starshot initiative included the late Stephen Hawking and the Harvard University astronomer Avi Loeb among its founders. What gives this group additional potential is that their idea for exploring space is based on 80 scientific studies on interstellar travel.

What the scientists, lead by Peter Klupar, the engineering director of the Breakthrough Foundation and the Starshot initiative, figured out after much experimentation and studies is that the best way to send an object to another star is by building a giant laser.

(Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Breakthrough Prize Foundation)

Stephen Hawking at press conference to announce Breakthrough Starshot on April 12, 2016 in New York City.

The technology the project is looking to implement would involve launching around 1,000 tiny "StarChip" spacecraft at about 20% of the speed of light towards Alpha Centauri. It happens to be the second-closest star system to Earth. Proxima Centauri, an even closer star system, is also being discussed as a destination.

The chips would weigh about a gram each and be attached to light sails. They would also be equipped with cameras to record everything they see. Propelling the ships through space would be a 100-gigawatt laser "beamer" that would be so powerful it could quickly burn down cities, according to Klupar. That is if it was mirrored back at us by some enterprising aliens (or our own hubris).

Hopefully, such an outcome does not come to pass but instead the Starchips, launched by mid-2030s, would send us back photos of new Earth-like worlds by 2060s. They would travel for about 25 years and there'd be about 4 years for the data to get back to us.

(Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Breakthrough Prize Foundation)

Yuri Milner, Breakthrough Prize and DST Global Founder, demonstrates a new chip on stage at press conference to announce Breakthrough Starshot on April 12, 2016 in New York City.

"You would think that this is all impossible, but we have folks at Caltech and the University of Southampton and Exeter University working on about 50 contracts on making all [of] this happen," Klupar said at the Economist's Space Summit. "No one has come up with a deal-breaker that we can find yet. It all seems real."

The project is certainly not without its challenges. A particular technical hurdle to overcome is the design of the light sail that would "catch" the beam from the laser and turn that energy into motion for the spaceship. The considerable challenge is to make it not fall apart from the amazing heat or acceleration and make sure it continues to go on course while avoiding interstellar space and dust, as points out Dave Mosher from Business Insider. Another issue is the massive cost of the laser facility.

While working out solutions, Starshot has already been launching early spaceships into space, starting with a fleet of six that went up in June 2017. They plan to launch more improved models that include cameras next year.

Credit: Breakthrough Starshot

One of the project's big goals is to build a 1-gigawatt laser station in the Sierra Nevada mountains and send starchips past planets like Mars, asteroids and other space bodies that aren't as far away from us. These spaceships would travel at about 1% of the speed of light. Mars would be just a few days away. Such an endeavor would cost around $1 billion to make real but the facility could make frequent exploration of deep space quite cost-effective moving forward.

After that, the ultimate goal will be the building of the 100-gigawatt laser – an effort requiring global cooperation, according to Klupar. That laser will be so bright that it will be "seen across the galaxy," said the scientist. It could also damage satellites, if the launch is not internationally coordinated.

One positive outcome of that, says Klupar, is that it will tell any alien civilization that "intelligent life exists" on Earth, adding "we're not really doing this just for one group of people. It's also the whole planet."

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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