Starshot

  • Posted: May 3, 2016
  • Category: Energy
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It is said that the really important changes pass unseen. The events that shake our world are hidden in the weeds while our attention is distracted by our lust for the ripening tomatoes in our carefully tended garden. Two thousand years ago, a young itinerant rabbi is executed on a hillside outside Jerusalem. An egocentric German, a university professor, posts a long letter on the door of a church in Wittenberg and the Reformation dawns across Europe. In 1905, a young clerk in the Swiss patent office publishes an arcane jargon filled paper on the electrodynamics of moving bodies that leads to the Theory of Relativity. In the early Sixties, an obscure computer scientist puts out a memo discussing a concept that he calls “Intergalactic Computer Network” which blossoms into today’s Internet.

I find this especially true in my own life. Just my regular Wednesday evening, Nickel Draw Night and Foosball, in a bar in 1972 led to a chance meeting with the woman who became my wife. Coming home from work one day four years later, this same woman mentions in passing that she thinks it is time we start a family. A butterfly flaps its wings and the world shakes, at least my world does.

Did a butterfly flap its wings a few weeks ago last April 12? An obscure billionaire, Yuri Milner, held a press conference in New York to announce a strange piece of philanthropy. An obscure billionaire? How many of them are there anyway? Wow!

But Mr. Milner is an interesting person, in the sense of reality, rather than in the sense of Kardashian. Born a Russian Jew, the son of high ranking scientists in the USSR, he was a physicist at Lebedev Physical Institute, working with Nobel Prize winner Vitaly Ginzburg and outspoken dissident Andrei Sakharov.

Disappointed in his own career and talents as a physicist, he turned to business and began selling grey market computers in the waning days of the USSR. With the collapse of the USSR, he traveled to the United States in order to attend Wharton where he graduated with an MBA. Returning to the USSR, he made the right connections, building his fortune by working with Internet startups in the USSR. A chance meeting with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg led to venture capital investments in Facebook and other startup companies in the US.

Now with an estimated net worth of $ 3 billion, more or less given the reclusive nature of Russian billionaires about such things, Yuri Milner is obviously a shrewd man. He has demonstrated that he has the personality and skills to successfully navigate the shark infested Russian waters of Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin. But his news conference concerned something unrelated to business interests. Mr. Milner announced that he would fund an initiative called Breakthrough Starshot. Breakthrough Starshot is the plan to send a space probe, Starshot, to Alpha Centauri within this generation. Just as the New Horizons probe made a flyby of Pluto last summer, Starshot is to probe the Alpha Centauri system.

Nerd Alert!! The next few paragraphs are about science stuff. It must be said in passing that it is somewhat strange that a culture with such a deep faith in Science is so unsullied by any knowledge of or interest in science. Starshot is a wild card, something unprecedented, in the increasingly predictable and mundane world of Science.

Why is an instrumented flyby, a probe, of Alpha Centauri, within a generation, a big deal? An instrumented flyby of Pluto last summer, New Horizons, made brief headlines, an interesting photo on a lower corner of the news feed that day. Another flyby? Ho hum, how much will this one cost?

To understand why Starshot is truly groundbreaking requires some background. Most importantly, we must come to grips with the sheer immensity of the Universe we live in. That flyby of Pluto last summer, New Horizons, took place 3.25 billion miles away from us here on Earth, just about one mile for every dollar in Yuri Milner’s account. But Alpha Centauri, the nearest known star system to our own, is something else again. Alpha Centauri’s distance from Earth is so great that only the dollars in the national debt of the United States are equal to the same comparison, nearly 30 trillion.

The paper that young Swiss patent clerk, Albert Einstein, published one hundred and eleven years ago and referenced earlier, changed our grip on reality. Among other things the implications of that obscure paper made automatic door openers and nuclear weapons possible, but it also established that the speed of light was the yardstick of the Universe. We are used to instant communications because the light signals carrying our calls travel so fast that they can circle around the world over 7 times in one second. But at a speed of 671 million miles per hour, a ray of light, or wifi signal, takes a little over 4 hours to travel from Earth to the point where the New Horizons probe flew by Pluto. That same ray of light or wifi signal takes 4.3 years to travel from our Earth to Alpha Centauri.

The New Horizons probe is one of the fastest spacecraft ever launched by human beings, traveling at nearly 9 miles per second. In less than six minutes it can travel from coast to coast of the United States. But New Horizons would take nearly ninety thousand years to reach Alpha Centauri, assuming it was pointed in the right direction. If the New Horizons spacecraft had been launched by conveniently visiting aliens when human beings (Homo Sapiens) were beginning their earliest migrations out of Africa, it would just now be arriving at Alpha Centauri. The conceptual design proposed by Breakthrough Starshot reduces this travel time from 90,000 years to 20 years.

To arrive at Alpha Centauri in twenty years, Starshot must travel at 40,000 miles per second or 0.2c. “c” being the speed of light, as used by Albert Einstein in his now famous equation; E=MC2. Of course Captain Kirk and Han Solo do this all of the time but then, they have the advantage of fantasy, i.e. hyperdrives, wormholes and teleport devices. Starshot can’t use fantasy physics, working only with what we know is physically possible and good old research and development.

The initial concept for Starshot is for a sail that looks like a trampoline, some twelve feet in diameter, to carry an instrument package resembling an IPhone. It has been well known for over a century that light can push a sail in space, just as the wind pushes sails in our own atmosphere. The force provided by networks of powerful lasers based on Earth’s surface would drive these sails. These probes, like sailing ships of old, will use laser light rather than the wind to travel in space. Everything in Breakthrough Starshot is scientifically possible, just requiring product development and engineering.

This is interesting of course, at least to those of us suffering from an overdeveloped science fetish. But for the vast majority of humanity, so what? What’s the big deal? Is it that I think we will discover little green men on Alpha Centauri?

My reasoning, my excitement, is not about little green men, though that would be a game changer for sure. My excitement is about big bucks chasing big goals. My excitement is about visionary dreams backed by tens of millions of dollars not controlled by NASA, the Energy Department, or Universities. As such things go, one hundred million dollars is not a lot of money, but sometimes all it takes is a small leak in the dam to make things happen. The long tedious letter posted by Martin Luther was a small thing, but it broke the monopoly on thought that had gripped the Western World for centuries.

One of the little jokes going around my generation is the snide question, “What happened to my flying car?” When we were kids, we watched The Jetson’s on TV. George Jetson went to work in a flying car. His son, Elroy, had a levitating skateboard. We expected that one day in the future when we had grown up, we would drive a flying car to work. Instead I drive a car, that for all its bells and whistles, Henry Ford would have no trouble understanding. Tony Hawk’s skateboard used wheels. Just think about what gravity defying stunts he could have done with Elroy’s skateboard. What happened?

Well, much to the disappointment of our teenage dreams, it turns out that science and engineering are hard work. It also turns out that we live in a perverse Universe. Not to put too fine a point on it, but reality is a bitch. Murphy’s Law is not the sour grousing of old curmudgeons; it is a simple and realistic description of the future. Things are going to go wrong. Accidents are going to happen. Everything will cost more and take longer than anyone estimated. I suspect you are either in upper management or a tenured professor in the Humanities if you don’t live with that truth every day.

But while science and engineering are hard work, it turns out that they also require vision. We once understood the power of vision though have since forgotten. On September 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy said the United States would put a man on the moon before the decade was out. If you want to see something that will bring tears to your eyes, if you want to see who we once were, if you want to once more feel proud to be an American, watch it again or for the first time.

(www.youtube.com/watch?v=g25G1M4EXrQ)

JFK’s stirring challenge was met. The Eagle landed on July 20, 1969. Neil Armstrong uttered those immortal words from the surface of the moon not quite seven years after JFK’s speech at Rice University. If you want to see something that will bring tears to your eyes, if you want to see who we once were, if you want to once more feel proud to be an American, watch it again or for the first time.

(www.youtube.com/watch?v=cwZb2mqId0A)

From a standing start, the United States went to the moon in seven years at a cost of thirty billion dollars. And then the government bureaucracy, otherwise known as NASA, took over. Today we have just retired what came after the lunar expeditions, the Space Shuttle. The Space Shuttle program, over forty painfully boring years, made 135 trips into low Earth orbit and cost over $ 200 billion. We continue to support the International Space Station, put into orbit by a Russian rocket launched from Russia, nearly twenty years ago. Total expenditures over those twenty years are another $ 160 billion. Our nation’s most vivid institutional memory of those forty years and the $ 360 billion drained from our pockets is the death of a young woman in the Challenger disaster, a school teacher onboard the Challenger only there to demonstrate NASA’s commitment to diversity in its workforce.

NASA has done many things well and done them over a significant length of time. It has been forty six years since the Eagle landed. During that time, NASA has spent something on the order of $ 834 billion dollars (2014 adjusted). Including hidden budget dollars, the United States has invested close to a trillion dollars in its civilian space program since the Eagle landed on the Moon. During that time, NASA has provided employment for a fluctuating number of employees, averaging around 25,000.

For that money, we have created a federal bureaucracy, probably no better or worse than Veteran’s Affairs or the IRS. As we all know too well, government bureaucracies are not noted for vision. The best that we can hope for is that the trains run on time. NASA is no exception. Its concerns are those expected of a bureaucracy and very down to Earth. NASA takes care to ensure that its budgeted monies are spent with a standard of accountability in the appropriate congressional districts, taking into account important lobbyist concerns, enforcing social goals such as the greening of its facilities while encouraging women in science. It is serious about enforcing diversity quotas in employment and contracting, thus Christa McAuliffe’s presence on the Challenger thirty years ago.

This is not a bad record of achievement, but it’s just that for almost fifty years and the expenditure of a trillion dollars, not much has happened. Faced with the Final Frontier, the great unknown, we have pulled back and clucked over our knitting. We go into orbit from time to time, one of our astronauts runs a marathon on a treadmill on the Space Station, but adventure has taken a back seat to the banal. We landed on the moon in 1969, but since then we have been no further than a couple of hundred miles up. Human beings have not always been so risk averse. Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492, a distance of a few thousand miles. Only twenty-seven years later, Magellan sailed around the entire globe, a voyage covering of tens of thousands of miles that unveiled an entire world.

Obviously space is a difficult challenge and it could be charitably said that NASA is building capability, creating a robust infrastructure, for the Great Leap Out. In fact that is what NASA says. But. Nothing is more critical to space ventures than the infrastructure of launch vehicles and facilities that allow us to get into space from Earth’s surface. The Apollo spacecraft that went to the moon in 1969 lifted off from Earth on top of a large disposable chemically fueled rocket. Every launch vehicle in NASA’s inventory today is a disposable chemically fueled rocket. The fuel economy of launch vehicles in 1969 is roughly similar to the fuel economy of today’s rockets. Virtually nothing has changed in how we get into space, other than we can no longer use our own launch vehicles for heavy payloads. For heavy payloads like trips to the Moon, NASA must now use Russian rockets and launch facilities for what we are no longer able to do ourselves.

Even the New Horizons fly by of Pluto that made news last summer was a replay of the Voyager series of space probes in the late 1970’s. Not much had changed between New Horizons and the Voyagers except the quality of the instrumentation and communications equipment on the probe. Quality and capability upgrades courtesy of Silicon Valley et.al. 1960’s era rocket launch vehicles courtesy of NASA.

I don’t really mean to pile on NASA. NASA is simply a part of what has come to be the Science Establishment. Scientists are human beings just like any other human being. They want a paycheck and the acceptance, the respect, of their peers. Like much else in our country, government funding has come to be the river that waters all basic scientific inquiry. Of course there are scientists that work for private enterprise, but they pursue the goals of commerce. Their fellow scientists supported by government and university money usually sneer in derision at those who “sellout” to crass business and the grubby scrambling for dollars.

That trillion dollars available to NASA over forty years became a steady stream of money provided funding for hundreds of thousands of other employees working for outside contractors, universities, lobbying firms, etc. A bedrock truth of business is that the customer is always right. NASA, and her sister agencies that followed, are the customer and those outside contractors, universities, lobbying firms, etc. are good businessmen. And so, we have the Science Establishment, a consortium led by government, advised by academia and supported by an interlocking infrastructure of outside contractors.

The Science Establishment, like all human organizations over time, has become very conservative and risk averse. Success is necessary for career advancement. But failure is the kiss of death. Thus progress is incremental on initiatives that risk little. Of course, new ideas are eagerly sought, that is unless the ideas really are new. The best new ideas are those that support existing science. And fit the purposes of those controlling the purse strings and determining future advancement. Playing the game moves a scientist up the career ladder, insuring tenure and pensions. Rocking the boat leads to a position as a teaching assistant at the University of Phoenix.

It is unfair to blame NASA, or the Science Establishment, for a lack of vision. The Science Establishment is what it is, a government bureaucracy. As noted earlier, their focus is on train schedules and predictable outcomes, not far horizons. Vision is more properly the province of our country’s leaders, most particularly our President. In keeping with his obligation to provide vision, our President has called climate change an “existential threat” that must be addressed. NASA, along with its great co-enabler of the Science Establishment, the Energy Department, are the bureaucracies that will direct and fund the effort to fight this “existential threat”.

Whether climate change is an “existential threat” to the United States or not, the Energy Department has shown itself capable of the same imaginative reach as NASA. Charged with the mandate to halt the rise in manmade carbon emissions, the Energy Department has created its own version of NASA’s Space Shuttle, windmills and solar panels otherwise known as Green Energy. In comparison to the Energy Department and much to NASA’s credit, she may suffer from a similar lack of effective action, but NASA has not allowed the same sorts of corruption and rent seeking as plague the Energy Department.

All of these programs overseen by the Science Establishment, i.e. the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station, Green Energy, are complex networks of Rube Goldberg activity difficult to evaluate. They require large amounts of money over long periods of time. Their complexity is an amorphous cloud preventing outside understanding and criticism. These programs are anthills of activity, providing ample opportunity for politicians to exercise the power of the purse, favoring supporters and chastising the opposition. Best of all, they allow the appearance of action on an issue without disturbing vested interests. In other words, they are perfect government programs.

We must remember and appreciate that nothing will shape the future wellbeing of the human race more profoundly than our ability to use space and energy wisely, but the shaping of that future ability is under the control of the Science Establishment. Make no mistake; the stakes are very high. Given the world as it is today, humanity has no choice but to grow, to expand the energy and resources we use. If we don’t grow and continue growing, the world will be forced to return to a pastoral lifestyle along with a substantially reduced population. Any change from the world of today to a world of small communities and artisanal production will be as envisioned by Mad Max rather than by Whole Foods.

After forty years and a trillion dollars, the Science Establishment has given us a space program arguably less capable than the one we started with. After only fifteen years and more than a trillion dollars, the Science Establishment has given us an energy infrastructure of rapidly increasing costs and declining reliability working at cross purposes with the needs of its customers. Both the space program and Green Energy as they exist are the creatures of bureaucracies in alliance with the Science Establishment. And as with any establishment, heresy is punished and orthodoxy rewarded.

The central problem facing the Science Establishment and the fundamental physical issue limiting the future well being of humanity is energy. To travel the vast spaces of the Universe require large expenditures of energy. To make a better life or even to maintain what exists for all of humanity requires enormous increases in available energy. But NASA has given us no better way to produce that energy than Robert Goddard’s primitive chemical rockets a century ago. The Energy Department has no better way to produce that energy than improved versions of the primitive windmills pumping water into Chinese fields 2200 years ago.

Looking under the covers, one finds many parallels between the Science Establishment and a theological hierarchy, i.e. a large organized church structure such as the Catholic Church in Martin Luther’s time. Both deal with things unseen and outside the reality of the average person. Neither can exist in the presence of fundamental doubt. Both require unquestioned acceptance of their central truths. If either admits ignorance or is proved wrong about fundamental issues, they will be destroyed.

The Science Establishment presents a united front on the fundamentals of science. While there may be some things we do not know, the basics, the fundamentals, are completely solid and known. Because of this certainty, this appearance of benign, altruistic wisdom and knowledge, the Science Establishment is accorded great respect and deference in the world. We, the great unwashed outside the priestly circle, are told that science is solid, the fundamentals secure, all that is left is to smooth out the rough edges and fill in a few details. But we, alongside the Science Establishment, are whistling in the dark walking through a creaking old house full of strange noises and flickering ghosts.

The Science Establishment carefully ignores the irreconcilable paradoxes in the fundamentals of science as now known, explaining that these apparent contradictions are not really paradoxes or irreconcilable. They will be explained at some future date. We simply need to fund larger and more expensive experiments to do so. As an example of such paradoxes, we live in and touch a world composed of matter and energy. But unquestioned fundamentals of science require that virtually everything (95%) in the Universe be composed of something untouchable and unseen, dark matter and dark energy. One is reminded of the great scene in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy and her friends first come before the Wizard.

That Swiss patent clerk, Albert Einstein, revolutionized our understanding of the world with his Theory of Relativity. His Theory of Relativity is one of the foundation stone’s supporting the Science Establishment. Other less well-known men, associates of Einstein like Planck, Heisenberg and Bohr, proposed an equally revolutionary theory, Quantum Mechanics. Quantum Mechanics is a foundation stone of the Science Establishment no less than Relativity. Both Quantum Mechanics and Relativity have been proven to be true in their particulars again and again. Yet they cannot both be true as they totally contradict each other, being mutually exclusive as to the fundamental workings of our Universe.

Another block in the foundation supporting the Science Establishment is a corollary of Relativity; i.e. the speed of light is constant everywhere and cannot be exceeded. But another block in the foundation supporting the Science Establishment is the Big Bang Theory (no – not the TV show) explanation of the Universe’s birth. But the Big Bang Theory requires the expansion of the entire Universe at a speed much faster than the speed of light for a significant portion of its history.

While the foundations of the Science Establishment are largely responsible for the material well being of the world today, those foundations are badly cracked and showing signs of breaking. We know what happens to a bridge when its foundations crack and break. As the bridge bears heavier loads, the bridge is in danger of buckling and falling down. Our past understanding of the physical Universe allowed great advances in the well being of humanity, but is becoming insufficient for our future needs. It is clear that our understanding of basic issues is flawed. A greater and better understanding is required if I am to get my flying car and my grandchildren get those levitating skateboards.

And therein is the promise of Starshot. Starshot offers opportunity and most importantly funding for heresy. Starshot provides a use for heresy at the same time it provides support. Continuing the comparison of science and theology, could Starshot be the dawn of the Reformation? Perhaps Starshot is as if Henry VIII had provided an opportunity for English heretics to escape the dead orthodoxies of the medieval church. Perhaps Starshot is as if Frederick the Wise had offered to protect Martin Luther from the Catholic Church. Oh wait, that’s what they did. A small leak in the dam grew into great cracks. Old orthodoxies were broken and something new came into the world.

By far the greatest problems that Starshot must solve are energy problems. Partisan political bickering has created a bitter divide in the world over energy generation. More critically it has forced the Science Establishment to choose sides. The Science Establishment is totally dependent on government for its existence. No government funding, no Science Establishment. Thus the Science Establishment has been drafted into the war over energy generation. And once the fighting starts, organizations based on faith, such as the Science Establishment, require even greater commitments by their faithful to their beliefs. Orthodoxy is the only allowable response.

As mentioned before, Starshot will be powered by laser light, 100 GW of laser light. One GW is the abbreviation for one gigawatt, equaling a 1,000 megawatts, or a 1,000,000 kilowatts. To give a sense of scale, the United States currently has installed the capacity to generate approximately 1,000 GW. Thus to power Starshot will require the equivalent of 10% of the entire electrical generation capacity of the United States. But Starshot will only need that power for a few seconds.

Providing 100 GW of electrical power for a few seconds to arrays of lasers on a remote mountain top region in the Southern Hemisphere is in some respects an engineering problem rather than a scientific problem. There are currently available technologies for generating, moving and storing power. But using those technologies on the scale and in the location needed for Starshot are simply not up to the task. While Starshot is physically possible with the science we know, it is not even remotely practical. One might as well power a fleet of Tesla Model S’s with AAA batteries.

There must be a better way. But rather than encouraging breakthroughs in energy generation, the Science Establishment spends its money encouraging the conversion of seaweed into gasoline or converting McDonald’s spent French fry oil into diesel fuel. There is plenty of money available to fund research into the conversion of corn or coal, or recycled comic books, into diesel fuel as well. Uncounted hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent subsidizing windmills or solar cells. But money spent on unconventional thinking to find a truly better way? Not so much.

Orthodoxy, when paired with money and political power, makes hard and non-negotiable demands. It is important to be right, but as noted earlier, being wrong is the worst possible outcome. Unless one proves a senior figure in the organization, or the entire orthodox establishment, wrong. Hell truly hath no fury! Even the University of Phoenix is no refuge for such as dare to commit such crimes.

When pressed, there is a hazy future hope held out by the Science Establishment that out there in the future someday, clean and practical nuclear fusion will be available to provide mankind’s energy needs. Even the Science Establishment, sharing drinks with their lobbyists after a day before a Congressional appropriations hearing, admits that Green Energy, even allowing fossil fuels, will never handle our energy needs. Nuclear fission of course is recognized as demonic, but nuclear fusion is a comfortable fuzzy future hope that can be relied upon for a few billion dollars every year to maintain a growing infrastructure of consultants, universities, lobbyists, etc. Everybody around the bar is comfortable with the idea of an expensive brute force fusion reactor that will be capable of generating electrical power at some nebulous future date, well past the retirement date of anyone there.

Twenty-five years ago a couple of scientists reported some strange results from their laboratory. They found evidence of a hydrogen fusion reaction around some platinum electrodes in their test tube, so called “cold fusion”. They were laughed at. They were ridiculed. They were shouted down. Their future livelihood was threatened. If “cold fusion” was real, the bridge supporting the Scientific Establishment would buckle and break, sending everyone into the rocks and cold water below. Martin Luther would have understood.

Those researchers muttering about “cold fusion” might well have been drinking some distilled liquid ginned up in the lab, but what if they weren’t? Could some of that money we spend turning corn into an inferior quality of gasoline be used to dig into that a little bit more?

One Response to “Starshot”

  1. Chris says:

    Glad there was a reference to the Big Bang Theory show.
    But a really good article.

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