Last year, a consortium led by billionaire Yuri Milner and physicist Stephen Hawking announced a plan to get to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to Earth. Called the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative, the plan is to send ultra-light "nanoprobes" to the system in 20 years by accelerating them to 20 percent of the speed of light using powerful lasers.
A group of German researchers - while fully supportive of the initiative - worried that without an important tweak, however, the science might suffer. One of these nanoprobes would be able to dash the Earth-moon distance in just six seconds at that speed. With this in mind, the researchers devised some ideas about how to slow the nanoprobes down so they can carry out some observations when they arrive at their destination (rather than zipping through the system at high speed), potentially spotting Proxima Centauri b, a possible habitable planet that orbits Alpha Centauri's oddball red dwarf sibling, Proxima Centauri.
"The solution is for the probe's sail to be redeployed upon arrival so that the spacecraft would be optimally decelerated by the incoming radiation from the stars in the Alpha Centauri system," said scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Gottingen, led by Rene Heller, in a statement.
"During the approach to Alpha Centauri, the braking force would increase," they added. "The stronger the braking force, the more effectively the spacecraft's speed can be reduced upon arrival. Vice versa, the same physics could be used to accelerate the sail at departure from the solar system, using the sun as a photon cannon."
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The plan is for the spacecraft to go to the star Alpha Centauri A at a distance of about four million kilometers, moving at about 4.6 percent the speed of light. Any higher and the probe would go right past the star, rather than being caught in the star's gravitational field.