Going beyond our solar system at Breakthrough Discuss 2018

The concept image above shows the NEA Scout CubeSat with its solar sail deployed as it characterizes a near-Earth asteroid. Credit: NASA

Every year, Stanford University brings together experts from around the world for the prestigious Breakthrough Discuss conference to explore the big questions of life in the Universe. Last month, Dr Amaury Triaud, a Birmingham Fellow based at the School of Physics and Astronomy, was invited to attend the conference. Here are his reflections on Breakthrough Discuss 2018.

Going beyond our own solar system

Breakthrough Discuss focuses on advanced propulsion systems with the potential to send a probe to the nearest stellar system.

Currently, the best interstellar concept appears to be a small chip surrounded by a large lightweight sail, illuminated by a powerful laser. This setup could accelerate a craft to a fraction of the light speed. Enormous work remains to achieve this, however progress is happening. Look out for NASA’s first solarsail craft, the NEA Scout, which is due to be launched in 2019.

While reaching the nearest stellar system might remain a dream, the combination of laser and sail could herald a new epoch of exploration of our solar system, where the number of interesting destination keeps growing. Carolyn Porco, Visiting Distinguished Scholar at the University of California at Berkeley, and Morgan Leigh Cable, a Technologist in the Instrument Systems Implementation and Concepts Section at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, described their respective efforts to visit Enceladus and Titan, both satellites of Saturn, both important destinations in the search for life elsewhere. More ambitiously, sending a telescope a distance ten times greater than Pluto would allow astronomers to capture images of some of the nearest extrasolar planets including the seven worlds of the TRAPPIST-1 ultra-cool red dwarf that I helped discover.

Creating artificial life and simulating Darwinian evolution                                                                                       

Over those two days, we also heard Charles Ofria, Director of the Digital Evolution Laboratory at Michigan State University, describe his fascinating work on artificial life, consisting of self-replicating and evolving computer programs. They allow researchers to witness the process of Darwinian evolution. Sara Seager, Professor of Planetary Science and Physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an exoplanet pioneer, described her efforts to catalogue all the gases produced by biology on Earth, a huge help for observers like myself, if we wish to identify the presence of biology beyond the Solar system. Finally, in one of the most rounded presentations, Steve Benner demonstrated what chemical structure life must have in order to transmit information from generation to generation while allowing evolution of the genome. He also argued that artificial life will be created on Earth before we find evidence for life in the Solar system, or outside.

Back to Birmingham

I came back to Birmingham, a head full of ideas, ever more motivated to find planets, and identify how frequently, and under which conditions biologies arises and persist in our Universe.

Find out more

Breakthrough Discuss 2018 conference website

Breakthrough Discuss YouTube livestream – Day One

Breakthrough Discuss YouTube livestream – Day Two

Catch up with the conversation on Twitter at #Discuss2018

Image credit: NASA