The universe is unimaginably large. The odds that we’ll find evidence of life anywhere in our cosmic neck of the woods is looking ever smaller, yet the time and energy required to send a craft or probe to look for alien civilizations in distant star systems means if you’re alive right now, you likely won’t live to experience first contact. Unless, of course, you’re some sort of immortal, in which case carry on.
One proposed solution to help us explore distant reaches of space without sending generations of astronauts to live and die entire lifetimes aboard cramped, fart-filled spacecraft is the Breakthrough Starshot initiative proposed by Stephen Hawking. This concept imagines using powerful lasers to send postage-stamp sized craft hurtling through space at incredible speeds and may even be capable of sending one such craft to Mars in just three days. Obviously, humans can’t ride aboard these spacecraft for ants, but each tiny probe could carry cameras, scientific instruments, and communication equipment, even human DNA - more than enough to establish first contact.
However, one leading astrophysicist and science writer has come out against the popular Breakthrough Starshot initiative. Ethan Siegel, a former columnist for NASA and current science writer for Forbes, self-published a piece claiming that Earth may one day accidentally declare interstellar war if the Starshot initiative ever comes to fruition. Siegel claims that sending anything hurtling through space at high speeds is a bad idea, even a tiny postage stamp-sized probe with no weaponry:
Perhaps we’ll send an array of starchips to the same system, hoping to probe these systems and gain more information. After all, the main science goal, as it’s been proposed, is to simply take data during arrival and transmit it back. But there are three huge problems with this plan, and combined, they could be tantamount to a declaration of interstellar war.
The three problems Siegel identify are that for one, these spacecraft are likely to be shredded into Swiss cheese by all of the particles of dust and other matter floating around in space, rendering the entire program a useless waste of resources. Secondly, Siegel says that there is no way to send these nanocraft with any level of precision to distant areas of interest. The most precise target we can aim for is a cone-shaped vector around any planet while hoping for the best, meaning we could blow right by inhabited planets and never know it. Finally, Siegel points out that there’s no way to stop these tiny spacecraft once they reach their destination, meaning we could send one of these tiny craft blowing right through an inhabited planet causing unknown levels of destruction given the speeds at which they will be moving.
While these are all certainly issues worthy of consideration before we start blasting lasers at space stamps, that last one should give us serious pause. Given how tricky even intraspecies communication can be when two humans don’t speak the same language, how can we be sure of how any of our attempts at communication will be received by hypothetical alien races about which we know absolutely nothing, not to mention bombarding them with high-speed projectiles? Of course, given some of the recent curious statements made by Air Force brass, maybe they'd like an interstellar war to test out their new Space Force. Will a tiny laser-propelled probe be the shot heard round the universe?