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Can we launch life at near light speeds to seed new planets with life with today's technology? What is the main engineering hurdle?

What I have thought of so far:

  1. Size: Use the smallest possible organism. Start with an organic molecule, then launch a virus like procine circovirus (60,000 atoms without capsid, 200,000 with), then attempt at organism like Nanoarchaeum equitans (500,000,000 atoms).

  2. Speed: Use say c/10 or c/2 where c is speed of light. You ideally want enough speed to minimise time of flight to go beyond even say, the solar system, in a human lifetime. If it was just the solar system a traditional space shuttle would suffice. But you don't want to be exposed to relativistic effects (unless there is some tangible benefit of doing so).

  3. Energy: We can generate enough energy to launch a payload of 500,000,000 atoms at c/10 speed.

  4. Accuracy: I assume we can launch payloads at c/10 with sufficient accuracy that a reasonable fraction can hit the moon (384,000 km distance, 3,400 km diameter). Alpha Centauri (4.4 light years, 850,000 km diameter) may prove a bigger challenge.

  5. Atmospheric disturbance: I assume this can be avoided at sufficiently high speeds. A significant fraction will pass through.

  6. Pressure: You don't want the organism to get internally squished during transport. This means all particles must feel the same force. One option is to accelerate a spherical charged container. Interior is shielded from charge and contains the organism. Force is delivered to the organism along one surface of the container - this still means a squish but only along one dimension. We need to engineer an organism to survive this.

As far as I can see, this last problem of surviving squish is the most significant challenge. Is this correct?

P.S. I have excluded the problem of how to resucitate the organism and get resources after it lands, or even how to slow it down before landing. So that the question doesn't get too long.

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    $\begingroup$ Maybe "Something as fast as a particle accelerator" rather than "A particle accelerator"? The particles of your organism need to be accelerated in uniform so they arrive together. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Mar 19, 2021 at 8:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Ash Definitely, I'll accept that too. $\endgroup$ Mar 19, 2021 at 8:40

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Not quite, but we're close. This is basically Breakthrough Starshot but with bacteria payloads

To achieve breakthrough starshot, we need a dozen technologies to advance by an order of magnitude. Give it a decade and we might be able to do it.

Using a particle-accelerator-like thing (a big honking electromagnetic gun with a ring to build up speed) to launch a tiny (<1mm, <1mg) capsule at relativistic speeds is probably doable within the next few decades, but I think "squish on impact" is only one of many problems. Here's what I've got, (I'll probably add more as I think of them):

  • The atmosphere will get in the way if launched from Earth. "I assume this can be avoided at sufficiently high speeds" is actually true, aerodynamics stop applying at these speeds! What does apply is worse though - this is more a relativistic baseball problem. Basically air molecules will undergo nuclear reactions with your projectile, stripping its front and gamma irradiating the neighbourhood, and sterilising the payload.
    • You need to build this thing in space to avoid the atmosphere.
  • Collisions with space dust. Starshot calculated for every square cm of cross section on the projectile, the journey between Earth and Alpha Centauri will have at least 1000 high speed (relativistic) collisions with dust particles over 0.1μm. A 1mm squared cross section is looking at 10 relativistic impacts with dust, which can at best throw it off course, at worst destroy it.
  • Accuracy. We're probably going to take a spray & pray approach to this, as the journey of a projectile to Alpha Centuri like this will be perturbed by so many things that will be tricky to calculate. "As it tumbles the shape will reflect sunlight unevenly, resulting in subtle thrusts." and "any tiny rock in the way will redirect them subtly". You probably want to send "tracers" that you can detect and trace so you can refine your path.
  • Energy. Starshot is looking at gigawatt hours per cm-sized probe. This is a lot. Your looking at needing to run a nuclear power plant, (or hundreds of thousands of solar panels), in orbit, or wherever you want to built this.
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  • $\begingroup$ I certainly agree with the 'spray and pray' part. It is, in fact, exactly the method nature uses. Millions of seeds are dispersed in the hopes that a few will take root and grow. $\endgroup$ Mar 19, 2021 at 14:30

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