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Our galaxy may contain billions of habitable worlds that don’t host any life. Should we attempt to change that?

Claudius Gros at the Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany, thinks we should. He believes in directed panspermia: deliberately seeding life throughout the cosmos. And to do that, he proposes we use a laser propulsion system that may not be technically out of reach.

Breakthrough Starshot is a project with ambitious aims to use such systems to send tiny, lightweight probes to Alpha Centauri. The goal is to take pictures of our nearest star, but these systems could also deliver much larger payloads into orbit around nearby stars, says Gros.

Potential targets include the planetary system around TRAPPIST-1, a red dwarf star just 40 light years away. Earlier this year, astronomers revealed it was home to seven rocky planets, three of which orbit within the star’s habitable zone.

Starshot’s proposed 20-year mission to our nearest star after the sun would rely on ultralight craft propelled up to 20 per cent of the speed of light by giant, Earth-based lasers pointed at a light sail – essentially a mirrored surface. While there are unprecedented challenges, particularly in laser design and the reflectivity of the light sail, the team remains confident of the mission’s feasibility.

“It is just a matter of the will to make it happen,” says Chi Thiem Hoang at the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics. However, with no way to stop, Starshot’s single gram craft would zoom past its target star system just hours after arrival.

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Category: Science