back to article Swarms of laser-flown bots visiting a planet light years away – and more NASA-funded projects revealed

NASA is funding 13 ambitious projects that could potentially lead to space missions one day, ranging from scanning for signs of life on Mars to exploring a nearby exoplanet with thousands of swarming spacecraft. Under the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NAIC) program, the US space agency supports seemingly wacky ideas put …

  1. Christoph

    The tiny interstellar spacecraft propelled by laser is Robert Forward's Starwisp

  2. AlanSh

    A couple of issues to be sorted?

    Where do these tiny bots get the power to beam messages back?

    How do they slow down?

    1. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge
      Terminator

      Re: A couple of issues to be sorted?

      Why dont we build into them the ability to mine local resources and create more of themselves

      After all... what could go wrong?

      1. Yorick Hunt Silver badge
        Terminator

        Re: A couple of issues to be sorted?

        Yeah, just ask Kryten about his nanobots!

        1. jake Silver badge

          Re: A couple of issues to be sorted?

          Sadly (?), globally destructive nanobots are the work of science fiction. If they weren't, Shirley we would have discovered a half-chewed galactic spiral arm or two by now.

          On the other hand, perhaps so-called "dark matter" is made up of lots and lots of paperclips ... be afraid, be very, very afraid.

      2. -maniax-
        Mushroom

        Re: A couple of issues to be sorted?

        > and create more of themselves

        Do you want replicators because that's how you get replicators

        1. Graham Dawson Silver badge

          Re: A couple of issues to be sorted?

          Yes, actually.

          I'm bored and they seem like fun. Just little lego blocks that can assemble themselves, right? Where's the harm?

      3. NoneSuch Silver badge
        Coffee/keyboard

        Re: A couple of issues to be sorted?

        "Coflow Jet, an aerospace company that builds electric aircraft and is also based in Florida, believes it can fly the first fixed-wing vehicle on Mars."

        First step, making sure it has two forms of photo ID, is there three hours before their flight and passes all TSA security checks.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: A couple of issues to be sorted?

      Where do these tiny bots get the power to beam messages back?

      How do they slow down?"

      Presumably that's the sort of stuff the research project will be looking at.

    3. gecho

      Re: A couple of issues to be sorted?

      If it is anything like Breakthrough Starshot, laser communications will send data back, and they won't slow down, just do a rather quick flyby at 20% the speed of light.

    4. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: A couple of issues to be sorted?

      It may not matter. I've seen this sort of proposal multiple times over the years and no one ever seems to suggest ways a probe massing a few grammes, no matter how big the swarm, will, be able to transmit back to Earth in a way that's not drowned out by the local star. On the other hand, who else may be behind the recurring push for this idea that might be able to re-purpose "a laser capable of beaming approximately 100 gigawatts" which, presumable, will need to be able to run continuously, not just a single short pulse between charges.

      1. DS999 Silver badge

        Re: A couple of issues to be sorted?

        They might have too much interference as they are doing the flyby, but they will need data storage because the bandwidth at that distance would be far too low to send pictures anyway. So they store all the data and use the star's gravity to change their path. Once they are suitably distant from that star they can begin dribbling out all the data they collected over the next months/years.

        Though I wonder if it would be possible at that speed to enter a hyperbolic orbit with the star, and re-enter that system every few years/decades to collect more data.

        1. Youngone Silver badge

          Re: A couple of issues to be sorted?

          Though I wonder if it would be possible at that speed to enter a hyperbolic orbit with the star, and re-enter that system every few years/decades to collect more data.

          That's a great idea.

        2. John Robson Silver badge

          Re: A couple of issues to be sorted?

          Normally I'd say "not without a gravity assist round a planet to alter velocity."

          But - maybe they could use those solar sails to slow down?

          1. DS999 Silver badge

            Re: A couple of issues to be sorted?

            The idea of using a laser to speed up is that the sail is getting many times standard solar radiation so it can get up to speed. In order to get that from a star the craft would have to get very close - and get hit not just by photons the laser generates but also the solar wind. The charged particles the solar wind is made is likely to shred the solar sail (and the craft itself) long before the photon density was sufficient to slow the craft.

            We also really don't know how typical our sun is as far as solar wind, CMEs etc. but there is reason to believe it is more quiet than the average star. Lot of unknowns trying a strategy like that, though I suppose if the craft could sample the solar wind at a distance its onboard AI (since we can't exactly steer it from Earth 4ly away) could make a call whether to try to slow down, and how much, before entering a hyperbolic orbit. Maybe each orbit it takes a few percent of c off its speed and by the time the grandchildren of the launchers are old it could potentially enter an orbit around the most hospitable looking planet.

            Assuming it can be powered and remain operational for so long, of course!

    5. elsergiovolador Silver badge

      Re: A couple of issues to be sorted?

      Don't worry about that. Surely there will be plenty of charging points for them on the way and the grid certainly will handle that.

      There will be 20 mph limit all the way.

      1. Dagg Silver badge

        Re: A couple of issues to be sorted?

        As per standard, the septics don't understand sarcasm!

        1. Dagg Silver badge
          Trollface

          Re: A couple of issues to be sorted?

          I just love that down vote as it means I made my point.

    6. james 68

      Re: A couple of issues to be sorted?

      @AlanSH

      "How do they slow down?"

      They would slow down using the stellar wind generated by the target systems star.

      1. Ian Johnston Silver badge

        Re: A couple of issues to be sorted?

        They would slow down using the stellar wind generated by the target systems star.

        In which case they could accelerate using our sun's solar wind, no?

        1. james 68

          Re: A couple of issues to be sorted?

          They could, but that would increase the total trip duration by many years.

      2. jake Silver badge

        Re: A couple of issues to be sorted?

        Nah.

        Clearly they would use regenerative breaking. Slow down AND power the transmitter!

        That, or have them drag their itty-bitty heels.

      3. DS999 Silver badge

        Re: A couple of issues to be sorted?

        They would slow down using the stellar wind generated by the target systems star

        Isn't that going to damage the sail, or the craft itself? Trying to slow down from 0.2c using the solar wind would be taking a LOT of hits from highly charged particles, and if the star has a CME in that direction it is goodnight craft.

        1. Sanguma

          Re: A couple of issues to be sorted?

          Proxima's a M-class star, which means it's flares, flares, flares, all the way down. No bell-bottoms.

        2. james 68

          Re: A couple of issues to be sorted?

          That rather depends on how far away from the target systems star they start braking.

    7. Roj Blake Silver badge

      Re: How do they slow down?

      Obviously, you build another enormous laser at the other end and use that.

    8. DJO Silver badge

      Re: A couple of issues to be sorted?

      Where do these tiny bots get the power to beam messages back?

      Proxima Centauri.

      One tiny bot can't push message 4+ light years but it can push one say a quarter of a LY to a trailing probe which in turn repeats the signal to another probe behind it and so on. Perhaps "swarm" is the wrong description, "column" or "line" might be better but does not sound so dramatic.

      You'd need at least 3 types of mini-craft, the ones at the front would be advance observers which would send messages back to the second wave which would be the actual science probes telling them what to look at and the third set would be a long trail behind of message repeaters that have no other function but to enable communications.

      How do they slow down?

      They don't.

    9. jmch Silver badge

      Re: A couple of issues to be sorted?

      "Where do these tiny bots get the power to beam messages back?"

      Well, they're going to a star so, solar power???

      "How do they slow down?"

      They don't need to, just fly past and send what they can along the way.

  3. Lurko

    Eight years message time

    So latency's going to be a bit pants for gaming.

    1. Spherical Cow Silver badge

      Re: Eight years message time

      At least a game of noughts and crosses (tic tac toe) could be completed within a human lifetime.

      1. Graham Dawson Silver badge

        Re: Eight years message time

        Sure is a strange game...

  4. DrBobK
    Headmaster

    The Moon and Massachusetts

    > sensors powered by nuclear batteries that generate electric power from radioactive decay to be used on the Moon, and Massachusetts

    I read that as 'the Moon and Massachusetts' and started to wonder what catastrophe had left Massachusetts without the ability to generate electricity or get it from other states. Very likely an experiment going horribly wrong, conducted in secret by those pesky, meddling, left-wing, pinko boffins at MIT and Harvard.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Put the money into to time travel and we will have already solved all these problems.

    1. Version 1.0 Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Yes, this story illustrate that if we have aliens visiting our planet easily then we need to investigate the Time And Relative Dimension In Space functionality.

  6. andrewmm

    alpha is a must

    We MUST go to the next star

    its got to be the goal to aim for,

    as to how, thats the question, this might be the way, there might be other, but we have to send something to see, its the next step!

    1. Sceptic Tank Silver badge
      Alien

      Re: alpha is a must

      Let them come here

  7. Denarius

    Mars flight at mach 0.25 ?

    So why is Airbus and ESA funding Perlan Project to get to 100,000 feet on Earth at which point the glider will have parts of wing airflow supersonic? Lower gravity will help but indicates to generate any useful lift Mach 0.5 will be required. Also avoiding Mons Olympus which sticks out of Mars atmosphere.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    This is what happens when you aren't quite specific enough with your instructions...

    "Gentlemen, Everywhere humans have gone rats have gone. Get to work on solving the rat problem"

    Fauna Bio, a biotech biz based in California, is drawing up plans for a microgravity hibernation device, named STASH, to be tested on the International Space Station. STASH is designed to keep rats in a state of torpor in temperatures held at four degrees Celsius.

  9. Sanguma

    I wonder, are they taking ideas from elsewhere, or is that only for boffins States-side? I've got this pesky little idea for a probe that'll last in a gas giant's atmosphere for the next decade or so, assuming it doesn't get eaten by one of Arthur C. Clarke's Medusas ...

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