On Tuesday, one of the most ambitious plans in human history was announced: We’re going to send microchips to the next galaxy over.
The Breakthrough Starshot project will send robot “nanocrafts” some 4.37 light-years away to the Alpha Centauri star system, a journey that should take each craft maybe 20 years and in total cost $5 billion to $10 billion. Announced by Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner and a team of theoretical physicists, the idea became public on Tuesday, and the reality of laser-beam powered, nanocraft “sailboats” took another step. Milner announced he would put in $100 million of his own money to get the project started.
To achieve this task, a concentrated field of lasers located on Earth will shoot energy up to the nanocrafts. The energy will be caught in the “sails” of the nanocraft and push the robot forward. It’s estimated that the Alpha Centauri mission will need a 100 gigawatt laser array — about 100 times the energy output of a nuclear power plant — just to get the nanocrafts to a fifth of the speed of light.
“The key elements of the proposed system design are based on technology either already available or likely to be attainable in the near future under reasonable assumptions,” according to the Breakthrough website. Using current or likely attainable technology, it would take an estimated one square-kilometer-wide field of thousands of lasers firing simultaneously to get to 100 gigawatts.
So where could we put such an array? Breakthrough lays out the requirements to get on the list of laser locations:
- High altitude
- Dry conditions
- Low probability of flyover from birds and aircraft
Here’s why those factors are important: A high altitude would reduce “atmospheric blurring” that the lasers will experience passing through the Earth’s atmosphere. Atmospheric blurring increases the size of the laser, and makes it less focused. The intensely focused light would be extremely hot, hence the advisory to keep birds and aircraft out of the light beamers’ path.
Given the high security that would be needed, and the investors who are funneling money into the project, it’s assumed the lasers would also need a reasonably safe field. Here are some locations that might work.
The Colorado Plateau
The Colorado Plateau is one of the largest in North America at around 130,000 square miles. You probably recognize it as the location of the Grand Canyon. The Colorado River drains most of the plateau, creating a high desert with a flat top ranging from 5,000 to 7,000 feet above sea level.
The Atacama Desert
Lodged between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes mountains, the Atacama Desert is around 41,000 square miles. It’s got the altitude, reaching up to 10,000 feet above sea level, and it’s dry — the Atacama is the driest non-polar desert in the world. The desert has already proven itself in the space department as well with the Atacama Large Millimeter Array telescopes.
The Ethiopian Highlands
Some of the highest points in Africa are located in the Ethiopian Highlands in Northeast Africa. Summits top out at nearly 15,000 feet above sea level, and altitudes rarely fall below 5,000 feet. But they are known for being rugged. One section, however, called the Sanetti Plateau offers a flat elevation of more than 13,000 feet above sea level.
The Tibetan Plateau
Known as the “roof of the world,” the Tibetan Plateau is an ever-growing mass covering 970,000 square miles at 16,000 feet above sea level. Glaciers and river tributaries would make much of the Tibetan Plateau useless for a field of light beamers, but there are plenty of locations where it rarely rains, creating a barren alpine tundra. There is a low population due to the low precipitation and high elevation, so flyovers wouldn’t be much of a problem here either.