In the beat of a heart…

April 13th, 2016

A hummingbird shaped spacecraft skimming across a ring system, somewhere in deep space ...

Steven Hawking has just called for humanity to mount a series of missions with tiny craft to Alpha Centauri. In looking around, I have realised that I wrote but never posted this article, last December. Silly me.

A hummingbird’s heart beats 1,260 times every minute. To a human ear, this would register as a high hum; no individual beats perceptible. However, in that infinitesimally short period of time, a particle of light, or a radio wave, would travel 238,000 km.

Perception, distance, and light speed are of fundamental concern of Dr Ronald Hanson, Professor at Delft University of Technology. He works in quantum physics, that branch of science which Einstein famously described as “spooky”. Quantum physicists like perplexing us with weird facts of nature, like particles that don’t appear in one place or another until you actually look at them.

Hansen leads a team that has just demonstrated, for the first time, the principle of quantum entanglement. That’s the actual effect within quantum physics that Einstein got the spooks over. Briefly (and very loosely) entanglement happens when two separate particles — in the Delft University’s case, electrons held in diamond traps — synch up. They inherit the same property of spin as each other. Then any change to one particle happens to the other at the same time.

While this may sound unexciting (my niece and nephew laugh at exactly the same time when Olaf gets his nose pushed out on Frozen), it’s the distance at which Hansen and his team conducted the experiment that has caused a stir. They separated their quantum particles by a distance of 1.3 kilometres, in two separate labs, and then caused a change in one of them. The other showed the exact same change.

Now here’s the real kick in the pants for Einstein: how quickly did the change take place? The answer: Instantaneously. In less time than it takes a hummingbird’s heart to beat; in less time than it takes light to travel even a single metre; in literally no time at all, the particles both changed.

It’s at this point that those of you with a passing familiarity with science, or even science fiction, will be shouting: “But that’s impossible! Nothing travels faster than the speed of light.” And you are right, of course. Einsteinian physicists have long told us that the universe has a built in speed limit. An upper threshold of velocity, above which nothing may pass. However, the result remains solid. No particle —- no solid thing —- traversed the 1.3 kilometre distance between the pair of entangled particles. The only thing which passed instantaneously across that space was information. And as it happens, Hansen’s main focus in demonstrating the bizarre quantum effect is to close loopholes in quantum encryption systems already being used by government and industry. But there is an even more fantastical application that I am interested in.

Space travel. One of the real limits to our exploration of the galaxy is the speed of light. We have to build giant, cumbersome, incredibly clumsy vehicles, and program them months in advance, whenever we want to explore a distant object. Even at the speed of light it takes us between eight and sixteen minutes to send a message to one of the robot rovers on even our closest celestial neighbour: Mars.

But what if we could communicate instantaneously with them? How would that affect our use of them, and subsequently even the way we designed them?

With instant communication, you can achieve agility. You can react to situations as they arise, and change mission parameters. You could update programming, and switch out lightweight equipment components, allowing for smaller craft and lower payloads. That allows you to go much faster, and reach further, more distant objects. Beyond the solar system, even. I am looking to the future. To a day when both quantum entanglement physics, and craft miniaturisation converge to provide us with the possibility of exploring other stars.

Alpha, Beta and Proxima Centauri are a trinary system, the closest to our own sun at only four light years away. If we could get a craft to even one third the speed of light, that distance would be covered in twelve years. Call it twenty or thirty, for acceleration and deceleration at each end. Think of the science we could do there. Three different stars, all in the one place. And it’s our nearest neighbour.

But how small a craft are we talking here? Well, that’s a matter of speculation, but pushing the limits, I would be aiming at only a few grams. And we’d have to send multiple craft all at once, to build in some redundancy to the missions.

Imagine a flock of tiny fliers, each only a few grams. And inside each one, a twinned particle, entangled with a partner back here on earth. They would sit in the little capsules, fluttering back and forth, tapping out their little digital signal, back here to us.

Like the tiny hearts of a flock of hummingbirds, beating out their thrumming signals, thousands of times a second. Exploring our galaxy.

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