Breakthrough Starshot obtains images of Alpha Centauri
Breakthrough Starshot is a major scientific endeavour that aims to develop a fleet of "nanocraft" probes, able to reach the nearest star within 20 years and return images to Earth. The multi-billion dollar mission, developed over a period of 20 years, is launched in 2036 with an estimated journey time of two decades and a further four years required for data to be transmitted back.* This project, seemingly far ahead of its time, was considered by sceptics to belong in the realm of science fiction. However, it has backing from NASA* and is based on sound scientific principles, while taking advantage of the latest cutting edge technology.
The mission consists of two main components:
• Nanocraft probes. Also known as StarChips, these are delivered by a "mothership" to a high-altitude orbit above the Earth. They are somewhat expendable as there are 1,000 of them and each is very small; centimetre-sized and weighing only a few grams. Designed to be extraordinarily compact, the StarChips carry highly miniaturised cameras, navigation gear, communication equipment, thrusters and a power supply. In addition, a "light sail" is fitted to each probe that unfurls before the journey begins, expanding to several metres in surface area. This fuel-less propulsion system is composed of ultra-lightweight yet extremely durable materials.
• Ground-based lasers. An array of extremely powerful lasers is situated on the Earth's surface. Perfectly aligned with each nanocraft probe, these fire beams of light into space that are captured by the crafts' solar sails, pushing them to extraordinary speeds. The average acceleration is on the order of 100 km/s² with an illumination energy of 1 terajoule (TJ) delivered to each sail. Within 10 minutes, the target of 0.2c (20% light speed) is reached. This is almost 60,000 km/s (37,000 mi/s) – fast enough to reach the Moon in 10 seconds, or the Sun in 42 minutes and is over 600 times faster than Helios 2, which became the fastest ever man-made object in 1989.* It allows these probes to reach the nearest star system in about 20 years.
Breakthrough Starshot is a major, long-term project requiring a timescale of more than four decades from its announcement to completion. The cost is upwards of $10 billion, placing it among the most expensive astronomical imaging systems ever conceived. A number of revolutionary new technologies have to be researched and developed before the mission can even begin. These include, for example, sub-gram digital cameras with minimum resolution of two megapixels, sub-gram computer processors, sub-gram photon thrusters capable of performing at a 1W diode laser level, an atomic battery powered by plutonium-238 or americium-241 and weighing less than 150 mg, as well as a coating to protect the nanocraft from high-speed collisions.
However, progress is made over the years by teams from NASA and elsewhere – not just in making these technologies actually work, but also in dramatically reducing their costs. Lasers, for example, continue to improve exponentially, consistent with Moore's law, leading to significant new advances in light beaming. Likewise, computer processing power grows by orders of magnitude. Researchers also develop a "buffer" material able to withstand the many collisions en route, having discovered that collections of heavy atoms, rather than subatomic particles, would be the main source of potential damage in addition to heat effects.* Costs for reaching orbit have also declined by the late 2030s, thanks to a new generation of rockets and a broader variety of launch options, making it feasible to send a very large number of probes for redundancy and coverage.
These various trends and exponential advances enable Breakthrough Starshot to bring economies of scale to the astronomical scale. By the time the mission is ready for deployment, the StarChips can be mass-produced at the cost of individual smartphones. The project's open, transparent and highly collaborative nature (entirely in the public domain) allows many ideas to flourish. The growing use of artificial intelligence is another tool helping to accelerate the design process.
While some of the probes are destroyed by incoming dust and other hazards, a sizeable number reach the Alpha Centauri system during the 2050s in a relatively intact state. These return images from our nearest stellar neighbourhood, including pictures of a terrestrial planet in a temperate orbit around Proxima Centauri, the small red dwarf accompanying the two larger stars.* This mission is one of the biggest scientific milestones of the 21st century.
Additional opportunities emerge from Breakthrough Starshot. The same technology used in developing the probes and the ground-based laser array can be used for exploration of the Solar System, or for kilometre-scale telescopes, or employed in the detection of Earth-crossing asteroids.
Hepatitis C has become a rare disease in the U.S.
Hepatitis C is an infectious disease affecting primarily the liver, caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). The infection is often asymptomatic, but chronic infection can lead to scarring of the liver and ultimately to cirrhosis, which is generally apparent after many years. In some cases, those with cirrhosis will go on to develop liver failure, liver cancer, or life-threatening oesophageal and gastrointestinal damage. HCV is spread by blood-to-blood contact from intravenous drug use, poorly sterilised medical equipment, transfusions, body modification (such as tattoos or piercings) and high-risk sexual activity.
The existence of hepatitis C (originally identified only as a type of non-A non-B hepatitis) was first suggested in the 1970s and proven in 1989. By the early years of the 21st century, an estimated 150–200 million people globally were infected. Those who developed cirrhosis or liver cancer required a liver transplant in some cases. However, in many regions of the world, people were unable to afford treatment as they either lacked insurance coverage or the insurance they had would not pay. In the United States, the average lifetime cost of HCV was estimated at over $33,000, with a liver transplant costing approximately $200,000; and more than 15,000 deaths were attributed to the disease each year.
Standard approved treatments were able to cure 50–80% of patients. However, a new generation of medicine was emerging, based on nanoparticles* and direct-acting antivirals* – able to target specific virus enzymes. This was alongside trends showing improvements in access to treatment, and more aggressive screening guidelines. By the 2010s, over a hundred new medications were being researched and developed. By 2036, only 1 in every 1,500 people in the U.S. are infected with HCV.**
In-vitro meat is a mature industry
in tissue engineering have made it possible to "grow" synthetic meat, using single animal cells. This first became affordable to the public in the 2020s.** After years of further testing and refinement, a wide range of different meat products are now available, in what has become a rapidly expanding market.*
In-vitro meat has a number of advantages. Being
just a lump of cultivated cells, it is produced without harm or cruelty to animals. It is unusually pure and healthy
whilst retaining the original flavour, texture and appearance of real
meat. Perhaps most importantly, it requires far less water and energy to produce, greatly lessening the impact on the environment.
crops, there were political and psychological
hurdles that delayed its adoption in some countries. However, rising food prices caused by population growth and ecological impacts, together with endorsements from animal welfare groups, later gave impetus to its development. Though still years away from completely replacing traditional meat, it is now a mainstream product in most countries around the world.
disease is fully curable
for Alzheimer's developed in the 2020s reduced the risk of acquiring
the disease by more than half.* Now, thanks
to pioneering efforts, a further decade of progress is yielding effective cures. Drawing from a myriad of long-term
studies, researchers have identified the precise mechanisms and processes
involved in the loss of neurons and synapses in the cerebral cortex
and subcortical regions. Faulty genes can be "switched off" with a new generation of drugs, while the brain itself is regenerated using stem cells.**
was aided in part by reverse-engineering
of the human brain, which provided researchers with a complete model
of its neurological system down to the cellular level. Nano-scale robotics are now increasingly common in medical procedures and these can precisely target individual cells.**
to combat Alzheimer's is one of the great success stories of the 2030s.
It comes at a time when dementia rates are soaring, with cases predicted to quadruple in the four decades from 2010 to 2050.*
eyes surpassing human vision
yet to become mainstream, bionic eye implants are now available that
not only restore sight, but actually exceed human vision. This breakthrough
has been made possible due to exponential advances in sensor technology,
computing and neuroscience.
generation of these implants began appearing in the 2010s.* They were somewhat crude initially – providing only a pixelated view
of the world and requiring the use of glasses frames for mounting the cameras.
generation, however, is such high resolution that it far exceeds the
sensitivity of natural human eyes, and is physically indistinguishable
from the latter. Gigapixels of resolution can be captured and transmitted
to the optic nerve into the visual centres of the brain. Externally
mounted cameras are no longer necessary – these have been miniaturised
by a factor of thousands and incorporated within the eye itself.
eyes will soon begin to offer more than just ordinary sight. They will
be capable of providing infrared vision, for instance, for improved
health and safety in night-time situations. They will include video
recording capabilities, serving as the ultimate in portable webcams.
The convergence of Web 4.0 and augmented
reality will enable users to receive detailed information on their surroundings,
just by looking around them.*
of these implants is dropping substantially, thanks to exponential improvements
in price performance. Costing tens of thousands of dollars in earlier
decades, they will soon be available for less than $100.
Kiryushchenkov | Dreamstime.com
probing and mapping of the Kuiper Belt is underway
in telescopic power have revealed countless new bodies in the Kuiper
Belt, many rivalling Pluto in size. At the same time, a new generation
of solar-sail technology is emerging. Spacecraft using this form of
propulsion were first demonstrated in 2010.
Much larger versions are now being deployed. Some have membranes extending
hundreds of metres, with greatly improved thrust-to-mass ratio – up
to 50 times higher than in previous designs. This is made possible through
nanotechnology and space-based production of sail panels.*
in the footsteps of New Horizons,
a series of these probes is now being sent to the Kuiper Belt, which until now was largely unexplored. Close range studies are conducted
on a number of the ancient, icy planetoids of this remote region.*
telescopes and longer-range probes, humanity is penetrating ever further
into the depths of space. Astronomers are now forming a highly detailed,
extremely accurate map of our Solar System as a whole.
Lemurs are on the brink of extinction
After years of decline, the vast majority of the world's 103 species of lemur are facing extinction. This has been the result of decades of sustained deforestation, mining, hunting, and slash-and-burn farming on Madagascar – their only natural habitat on the planet. By now, very little of the island's original forest cover remains. This has forced lemurs and countless other species into increasingly small and isolated patches of liveable habitat.*
In earlier decades, a number of efforts were undertaken which attempted to preserve the remaining populations. The effectiveness of these projects was severely limited by the social and political climate of Madagascar. Government corruption and the impotence of law enforcement meant that any restrictions on deforestation and poaching were poorly enforced or outright ignored. The extreme poverty of the nation also forced many inhabitants to turn to the forests to illegally cut wood or dig for gold in order to support themselves. Many hunted lemurs for food as well.
Today, the majority of remaining individuals can be found only in zoos and private collections. Lemurs are now joining the ranks of the radiated tortoise* and many other species disappearing from Madagascar. By the middle of the 21st century the island will have experienced one of the most dramatic mass extinctions in human history. This will occur alongside many similar events throughout the natural world.*