Relativistic Generalization of the Incentive Trap of Interstellar Travel with Application to Breakthrough Starshot
As new concepts of sending interstellar spacecraft to the nearest stars are now being investigated by various research teams, crucial questions about the timing of such a vast financial and labor investment arise. If humanity could build high-speed interstellar lightsails and reach α Centauri 20 yr after launch, would it be better to wait a few years, then take advantage of further technology improvements and arrive earlier despite waiting? The risk of being overtaken by a future, faster probe has been described earlier as the incentive trap. Based on 211 yr of historical data, we find that the speed growth of artificial vehicles, from steam-driven locomotives to Voyager 1, is much faster than previously believed, about 4.72 % annually or a doubling every 15 yr. We derive the mathematical framework to calculate the minimum of the wait time to launch t plus travel time τ(t) and extend it into the relativistic regime. We show that the t + τ(t) minimum disappears for nearby targets. There is no use of waiting once we can reach an object within about 20 yr of travel, irrespective of the actual speed. In terms of speed, the t + τ(t) minimum for a travel to α Centauri occurs at 19.6 % the speed of light (c), in agreement with the 20 % c proposed by the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative. If interstellar travel at 20 % c could be achieved within 45 yr from today and the kinetic energy be increased at a rate consistent with the historical record, then humans can reach the ten most nearby stars within 100 yr from today.