How Self-Replicating Spacecrafts Could Help Explore the Milky Way

Maven

Maven

The mathematician John Von Neumann has revolutionized many areas such as physics, economics or computer science. Among his many contributions, there are the Von Neumann space probes. The mathematician devoted a part of his career to studying and theorizing the phenomenon of self-replication, that is to say, the capacity of a living being, of a program or a machine to produce a new version of itself. This led him to an interesting observation.

Von neumann

Von Neumann

 

 

The galaxy has hundreds of billions of stars spread over hundreds of thousands of light-years. How to effectively explore such immensity? Von Neumann and others have imagined the use of self-replicating spacecraft. These spacecraft would arrive in one system and use local resources to build additional space probes and increase exploration opportunities. NASA was interested in the subject with a study conducted in 1981. It concluded that such space probes, if they were able to move at 10% of the speed of light, could explore the entire Milky Way in half a million years. It’s very long, but it’s shorter than any other option.

Milky Way

Milky Way

Exploiting local resources and making self-replicating spacecraft would have been the best way to mine an asteroid or build a Dyson sphere. Self-replicating spacecraft are likely to remain science fiction. However, it allows asking interesting questions. If another civilization exists somewhere in the Milky Way, it should have had that idea too. In this case, the universe should be swarming with self-replicating robots that exploit the resources of all systems. But we don’t observe that phenomenon, at least in the solar system. This is another element that feeds the Fermi paradox.

Dyson Sphere

Dyson Sphere

Could these machines reproduce a dysfunction, a bit like a genetic mutation that would make certain lines more and more efficient? This would be a real Darwinism of the space probes with perhaps a total loss of control compared to the initial objective. As exciting as these questions are, we probably will not answer them in our lifetime.

 

Images by NASA / LANL [Public domain] / ESO/S. Brunier [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)] / capnhack.com

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