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Breakthrough Starshot mission aiming for the stars, and ASU's Krauss is on team.
Probe traveling to nearest star is both inspiring and challenging.
May 20, 2016

ASU's Lawrence Krauss part of stellar advisory team for Alpha-Centauri-or-bust Breakthrough Starshot mission

It could be ripped from a comic book, but it’s not.

A Russian billionaire drops $100 million on a decades-long mission to send a fleet of tiny spacecraft out of the solar system to the nearest star system, enlisting the help of a boy tech mogul and some of the world’s most brilliant scientists, one of whom communicates with an electronic speech synthesizer.

This is the Breakthrough Starshot, and it’s going to Alpha Centauri.

Yuri Milner, a wildly successful tech investor, announced about a month ago he is funding a research and engineering program aiming for a flyby mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation. His advisory team encompasses a stellar group of scientists and engineers, including Arizona State University’s Lawrence Krauss, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

“It’s really exciting because I never dreamed in my lifetime it’d be possible to be involved in a probe going to the nearest star,” Krauss said.

Krauss — a theoretical physicist and cosmologist, Foundation Professor of the School of Earth and Space ExplorationThe School of Earth and Space Exploration is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences., director of the Origins Project and the only physicist to have received awards from all three major American physics societies — said he expects to be involved with the project for the next 20 years.

“I was working out this morning so I can be healthy and alive when the first signal comes back,” he said.

A man and a woman sit in easy chairs on a stage discussing science writing.

ASU theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss (shown April 22 at an Origins Project Dialogue with Scientific American editor-in-chief Mariette DiChristina) says the physics involved in the Breakthrough Starshot plan are pretty straightforward; it’s really an engineering problem. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now


The plan is pretty simple. Launch a fleet of ultralight miniature spacecraft fitted with solar sails into space, give them a hard shove with a ground-based laser array, and wait about 20 years while they speed towards Alpha Centauri at 100 million miles per hour.

Executing the plan is not simple. Right off the bat there are about 24 engineering challenges that need to be solved. Breakthrough folks have claimed they’re relying on Moore’s Law to achieve some of them.

Moore’s Law says that the number of transistors that can be jammed into a computer doubles every two years. Compare the original cellphones the size of a shoe box to that sleek thing in your pocket today. That’s Moore’s Law at work.

And it might not work in this case. Jekan Thanga, assistant professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and head of the Space and Terrestrial Robotic Exploration Laboratory, has built one of the tiniest spacecraft yet — the SunCube Femtosat, a 3 cm cube.

“Moore’s Law is getting to the end of the road,” said Thanga, who has a doctorate in space robotics. “We can’t shrink forever in terms of numbers of transistors and silicon. ... I think the bigger challenge is withstanding force.”

The small size they’re aiming for can be achieved (not any time soon, but it’s possible, Thanga said). What’s going to be the big stickler is speed — not the 100 million mph velocity the fleet will be traveling at, but acceleration — surviving that laser shove into the galaxy, estimated to be thousands of Gs.

“Most electronics would literally be unusable at that point,” Thanga said. “For it to take on that continuously, we’re not there yet. ... We may have that technology already, but this is the type of stuff that can withstand an explosion.”

Video by Breakthrough Initiatives demonstrating the laser-array push


The laser array proposal seems viable to Thanga.

“It’s still individual technologies,” he said. “The technologies haven’t come together yet to make a system. ... The optimist view could be you draw a line for 50 years and see what comes out.”

With the solar sails and incredibly intense laser array, the entire project is going to push the edge of technology, Krauss said.

“It’s all incredibly challenging, but it’s not impossible,” he said. “What’s really neat is that this might be workable. The reason I’m happy to be involved with it is it’s a project governments wouldn’t or shouldn’t be involved with. ... It is truly inspirational to think we might get signals back from a probe at a nearby star.”

The physics of it won’t challenge either Krauss or Hawking.

“It’s 20 percent the speed of light, so the time distortion won’t be that great,” Krauss said. “There’s nothing to crack. It’ll happen. The ship will be 5 percent younger than it seems, but it won’t change anything. ... It’s all straightforward physics. It’s really an engineering problem.”

Going full Star Trek has its temptations, but also limitations, Krauss feels.

“A warp drive would be great, but I don’t think it’s practical,” he said.

The Starshot is one of the three Breakthrough Initiatives, founded in 2015 by Yuri and Julia Milner to explore the universe, seek scientific evidence of life beyond Earth, and encourage public debate from a planetary perspective. Two more are the Breakthrough Message, which aims at creating a message with which we can greet another civilization should that happen, and Breakthrough Listen, the largest-ever scientific program aimed at finding evidence of civilizations beyond Earth.

“A warp drive would be great, but I don’t think it’s practical.”

— ASU theoretical physicist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss

This is the start of a new era in exploration: interstellar travel.

“I think as a goal it’s a very noble one,” Thanga said. “We’re on this cusp of exploring the outer edge of the solar system. What’s the next big draw? ... This is our closest neighbor, so from a space-enthusiast point of view we need to know.”

Thanga expects positive research outcomes because of the slew of problems to tackle.

“I’m glad people are going to tackle these problems out of the box, so we have diversity of methods to travel,” he said. “If we don’t diversify in our ideas and research attempts, we’ll stay stagnant. That’s what will be most promising about ideas like this.”

Krauss is inspired by the whole idea.

“It’s the only way in my opinion to consider going to the stars,” he said. “It’s an honor they wanted me to be involved in advising them. ... It’s a much more sensible idea than sending humans into space. We do better here on Earth.”


Top photo: Proxima Centauri, shown in a Hubble telescope photo, is the nearest member of the Alpha Centauri star system. Telescope-created X-shaped diffraction spikes surround Proxima Centauri, while several stars further out in the Milky Way Galaxy are visible in the background. Photo by NASA/ESA/Hubble




Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


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Embracing the uniqueness of the university

Stefanie Lindquist named deputy provost, vice president for academic affairs.
May 23, 2016

New deputy provost attracted to ASU by the power of the school's mission

Stefanie Lindquist enjoyed perhaps the most convincing job recruitment visit possible at Arizona State University, and she wasn’t applying for anything.

Lindquist, dean of the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs, spent two days in March shadowing ASU President Michael Crow as part of the Millennium Leadership Initiative sponsored by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. Although the program staff usually chooses a mentor for each MLI fellow, Lindquist specifically requested Crow.

This week she was named ASU’s new deputy provost and vice president for academic affairs.

She tried to describe a single moment from the visit that stuck in her brain, and later led to her applying for the No. 2 slot in the provost’s office, but she couldn’t narrow her answer down to just one.

She watched:

  • The town hall with Crow on the Polytechnic campus with students, including some from other campuses linked by video, offering creative suggestions for lighting improvements or for composting at university restaurants and dining halls.
  • Crow making sure that an engineering student he met in a dining hall emailed details about the course he was having trouble getting into.
  • The high-level discourse of a graduate course, team-taught with one professor Skyping in from Washington, D.C., looking at technological advancements that have changed public policy and social structure.
  • Phoenix architects talking urban design and underscoring how integral the university has become to the community’s and the state’s identity and development.

“What struck me was the singularity, if you will, of the university community’s understanding of the mission, from the administration through the faculty to the students,” Lindquist said. “They completely embraced the uniqueness of their university’s mission, the access to higher education that wasn’t there in previous generations, and the excitement associated with the research being performed there.”

Mark Searle, executive vice president and university provost, said Lindquist immediately rose high in the national search for his new deputy because of her breadth of experience as a professor, a lawyer and an administrator and her demonstrated success in quickly stepping up to greater responsibility. She served as interim dean and helped reestablish calm at the University of Texas’ law school in 2011 when the dean was suddenly forced to resign. Her appointment at ASU includes serving as a Foundation Professor of law and political science.

“Stefanie knows the challenges of the classroom and the countless interoperating parts that a university leader must keep running efficiently,” Searle said. “And she brings to ASU a personal enthusiasm for education’s ability to raise an individual’s socioeconomic status. That drive is essential as she helps our efforts to grow our enrollment, raise our retention rates and recruit top tenured and tenure-track faculty.”

Lindquist clerked for a federal Court of Appeals judge and worked as a government contracts litigator in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. She taught at Georgia, Vanderbilt and USC’s Gould School of Law, in addition to Texas’ law school.

At Georgia, Provost Pamela Whitten sent a memo to leadership there this week praising Lindquist for elevating instruction and research, including creating a new Scholar in Residence Program and a joint Applied Politics program with the journalism school. She also helped launch the UGA Women’s Leadership Initiative focused on support for women’s advancement in university administration.

Lindquist, a military history buff, has visited every major Civil War battlefield east of the Mississippi. For conflicts and challenges of today, she takes a lawyer’s deliberative approach and said she wields a keen sense of the varied interests of the university’s constituencies as she approaches a decision.

“I try to think about each decision’s ripple effects on our accessibility to students, on faculty, on donors and alumni,” she said. “At UGA I have worked to establish a non-hierarchical environment, a welcoming environment, in hopes that people will feel comfortable telling me when things are working and — perhaps more importantly — when they are not.”

Lindquist takes her new post on Sept. 1.

Top photo: Stefanie Lindquist with students at the University of Georgia. Photo courtesy of the University of Georgia