A Harvard scientist has proposed a new idea for interstellar travel: what does microbes have to do with it?

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A Harvard scientist has come up with a new idea for interstellar travel: what microbes have to do with it

According to the scientist's idea, microbes will be able to create the necessary equipment after they land on distant planets.

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Microbes carried into space by interstellar probes with light sails using powerful lasers will be able to build communication stations to contact the Earth from the vicinity of Alpha Centauri. At least this idea was proposed by geneticist George Church of Harvard University, USA, writes Space.

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Spacecraft with a light sail

George Church's new idea is based on scientists' efforts to use light sails to reach distant stars. Theoretically, a spacecraft that uses a conventional rocket engine would take thousands of years to travel to other stars.

For example, to the Alpha Centauri system, which is the nearest star system and is 4.3 light years away or 41 trillion km, the Voyager 1 spacecraft will have to fly for 75 thousand years. Focus already wrote about where this and the other four most distant NASA spacecraft are located.

Today, many scientists believe that only a spacecraft with a light sail, which uses the energy of sunlight, can significantly reduce the time it takes to travel to other stars. But for this, the spacecraft must be very light and have a huge light sail.

A scientist from Harvard proposed a new idea for interstellar travel: what does microbes have to do with it

A scientist from Harvard proposed a new idea for interstellar travel: microbes

Even 6 years ago, American scientists proposed a project called Breakthrough Starshot, which involves the launch of a large number of spacecraft the size of a microchip with a light sail to Alpha Centauri. It is believed that they will be able to fly at a speed that is approximately 20% of the speed of light and reach their destination in 20 years. But these light sails, according to scientists, will be powered by very powerful lasers from Earth. But there will be no laser near Alpha Centauri, which means that these devices will simply fly further, and not stop. That is, they will not be able to land on a distant planet.

“Even though these tiny vehicles will be very light when moving at 20% of the speed of light, each of them will have as much energy as 1/8 of the power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Instead, I suggest using probes in a billion times lighter and have no more than half a food calorie of energy. They can land on a distant planet,” says Church.

Tiny microbial probes

But what is the use of such devices? According to the scientist, if they carried genetically modified microbes, then after landing they would be able to create useful equipment. For example, the Starshot mission calls for a 100 gigawatt laser array, which will be the most powerful laser ever built by man. Church proposed creating extraordinarily tiny probes, enough to propel a relatively modest laser. For example, a basic craft weighing about 40 mg with a sail 40 cm in diameter may only need a 2 gigawatt laser machine. But this machine will have thousands of microbial probes.

A scientist from Harvard proposed a new idea for interstellar travel: microbes

A scientist from Harvard proposed a new idea for interstellar travel: microbes

According to the scientist, a typical bacterium has a mass of about 1 picogram, or one trillionth of a gram, and would only need a sail measuring about 15 millionths of an inch (0.0001 square centimeter) with a mass of about 7.6 picograms. Such interstellar probes are likely to be subject to impacts that can disable or destroy them – from dust particles or even hydrogen atoms. However, the fact that you can launch as many as a billion of these probes, the loss of many of them will not be a problem, says Church.

Once the probes reach their destination, Church says the genetically engineered microbes will be able to build the communication modules themselves. One communication strategy could be bioluminescence, by which microbes can emit light using the kinds of molecules found in fireflies or other naturally bioluminescent organisms. While this light can be relatively dim, Church believes that in the absence of predators and under ideal growth conditions, microbes could cover the entire planet in as little as 124 hours. Church also suggested that microbes could create a “biolaser” capable of converting starlight into a beam of communication. Such a communication array, built by these probes, can transmit flashes of light back to Earth, the scientist says. These beams can encode destination data such as temperature, pressure, and pH.

Where to fly to?

According to the scientist, the rocky world of Proxima Centauri b, which is located in the Alpha Centauri star system, could become a target planet for microbial probes to visit. However, it receives only 3% of the light it needs for photosynthesis, which could make it difficult for any microbial probes to thrive.

Other target planets could be worlds around the stars Alpha Centauri A and B in the Alpha Centauri system. These may not be rocky planets, instead they may be more like Uranus and Neptune and are covered in water and ammonia. However, there are microbes on Earth that can survive in such places.

Many experts call Church's idea too fantastic, but the scientist insists on its viability.

Speaking of living microorganisms. Only in the next decade will scientists be able to find out whether there is or was life on Mars in the form of microbes. And now the Perseverance rover is collecting samples with potential signs of life. Now he is preparing a backup copy of the sample containers and why this is needed, Focus already wrote.