The Man Who Could Make Interstellar Travel to Alpha Centauri Possible
Greg Matloff has spent most of his life trying to go interstellar, and he's closer than ever.
One of the first things NASA physicist Les Johnson will tell you about his colleague Greg Matloff is that “he’s one of the best innovators I’ve ever met.” Later, he doubles down: “Greg is a visionary.”
Even among his future-focused NASA peers, Matloff seems ahead of his time in astrophysics and aerospace engineering, whether it has to do with interstellar travel or clashing cosmological physics and theories on consciousness.
There are his questions about which star systems are the best to target in search of extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), yes, and how to protect Earth from asteroids.
By day a professor at New York City College of Technology in the astronomy and physics department, Matloff is also a Hayden associate for the American Museum of Natural History, a fellow at the British Interplanetary Society, and member of the International Academy of Astronautics.
Recently, he was made a member of the advisory board for Russian billionaire Yuri Milner’s interstellar Breakthrough Starshot initiative, perhaps his most ambitious project yet.
Professor Greg Matloff: the guy trying to achieve interstellar travel.
His accolades aren’t ones any normal scientist — or even any exceptionally proficient scientist — picks up during a career. You don’t get to be part of the same group of luminaries as Lawrence Krauss, Mae Jemison, Philip Lubin, and Freeman Dyson without being able to contribute something really special.
You probably wouldn’t immediately pick that up upon meeting Matloff, though. I first met Matloff on a cold day in November in a crowded Brooklyn coffee shop. He has an unassuming but genial presence. Once you start asking him questions, his eyes and voice become animated, and one would be remiss to let their attention wander.
Though Matloff’s career stretches across many different projects, his role as a Starshot’s advisor offers an apt illustration of his renown. The project calls for sending a cadre of inexpensive robotic spacecraft to Alpha Centauri to look for signs of habitability and extraterrestrial life.
If the Starshot concept sounds weird, don’t worry, it gets weirder: The project aims to get these micro-spacecraft across a 4.3 light-year distance in a speedy 20 years. The idea is to propel the chip-sized “nanocraft” by fitting them with relatively large solar sails that are pushed to a speed of about one-fifth the speed of light, propelled by the sun’s rays (and a very large, maybe impossible laser on Earth). Fun stuff, right?
“I was invited last April to join Yuri Milner’s team,” Matloff tells me. “It’s not the type of thing where you ask to become a member. They recognized they needed someone with a lot of experience in photon sail material.” He modestly suggests there may be one of two other people in the world with the same or more experience thinking about the design of solar sails, but at its core, he’s the guy.
So, what makes Matloff the right person to lead up a mind-expanding project like this one?
Matloff began his work in the late 1960s, when he was a 20-something engineer at various aerospace companies in New York, including Kollsman and Grumman (before it was merged into Northrup Grumman). After learning he had a penchant for research and having already published a few papers in peer-reviewed journals, Matloff applied to earn a master’s degree at New York University’s Department of Aeronautics and Astrophysics. His undergraduate record caused some concern, but after taking a look at his publications, the department decided, “You’re our boy,” Matloff says, laughing.
He began taking courses by night, finishing his degree in three years, in 1969. Matloff was plenty more enthused with doing research over coursework, but for a while he didn’t have a specific focus. Matloff was trying to figure out exactly what kind of project he wanted to work on when he stumbled on the 1965 book by James Strong, Flight to the Stars: An Inquiry into the Feasibility of Interstellar Flight.
“He said something that I believed was wrong,” Matloff says.
Strong contended that interstellar travel could be possible through brute-force nuclear fusion — “basically bombs going off.” About 30 percent of the energy produced by such a system would be in the form of charged particle kinetic energy — the rest is in the form of neutrons and gamma rays. Strong hypothesized that if those neutrons and gamma rays were put into some type of reflective device, you could create a photon drive that could provide propulsion.
With his idea, Matloff went to his advisor and told him he didn’t think this would work — photons simply could not impart enough momentum. Instead, he predicted one would need additional propulsion created by something like an ion drive, in which electrically charged particles could impart more momentum.
“Very good Greg,” his advisor replied. “You’ll get your master’s degree, and when you write the paper, I’ll be your co-author,” Matloff recalls.
The paper was published in the Journal of the Astronautical Sciences, and Matloff came away with a master’s degree soon after. He took on a brief stint at United Aerospace Technology in East Hartford, Connecticut. When Apollo funding ended, he spent some time as an observational astronomer at the Van Vleck Observatory at Wesleyan University. That also didn’t last long. Matloff soon found himself back in New York.
One day, a friend of Matloff’s told him his name was dropped in the Congressional Record, the official daily record of all debates and proceedings which occur in the U.S. Congress. “I didn’t think I did anything that bad!” Matloff told her, but she was quick to point out this was a good thing.
The famed physicist and science fiction writer Robert Forward had taken some of Matloff’s master’s thesis work and wrote him up. This meant that, in the eyes of the federal government, Matloff was effectively seen as an expert in his field. So, naturally, “I was offered money,” he says.
He started collaborating with a friend on a fantastical design for a spaceship which could fly up into space at practically the speed of light without any sort of chemical propulsion, relying instead on the interstellar magnetic field. A “very nice idea,” says Matloff.
When their paper went out for review, one expert excoriated it, calling it a dud. The other reviewer was Evan Harris Walker — a physicist whose ideas on quantum consciousness would later inspire Matloff. He told the pair the design as a whole wouldn’t work, but there were aspects that could be explored and developed. He suggested there could conceivably be some sort of ion collection device, or reflection device, to help propagate the spacecraft forward.
“He was very generous with the idea,” says Matloff. He began writing regularly for the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, which in the ‘70s began taking a concerted interest in interstellar travel. It was a providential position for Matloff.
At the time, his ideas were largely focused around fusion and antimatter, but this would change when he was finally introduced to the notion of solar sails, by Michael Mautner. Currently a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Mautner is a big proponent of directed panspermia, the notion that humans should actively seed other worlds with terrestrial life in order to preserve the human species and the legacy of Earth.
That’s precisely why Mautner is interested in solar sails, because they could easily facilitate the transfer of preserved basic life on a robotic spacecraft to other planets and moons within the solar system and beyond.
“I started looking at aspects of solar sailing,” says Matloff, “and I was able to demonstrate that, yeah, a very, very thin solar sail, unfolding as close to the sun as possible, could probably get to the stars certainly a lot sooner than 1,000 years or so.”
Scientists and engineers are notorious for thinking about future technologies and applications in incremental, pragmatic, “real” ways. When I ask Matloff why he feels less shackled to think about interstellar travel and other concepts that seem so futuristic and somewhat far-fetched, he cites interests in planetary physics and chemistry, quantum physics, cosmology, and other disciplines where people are encouraged to consider the stranger, more abstract side of science. He’s a generalist in many ways and feels unencumbered to apply what he knows from one field to another.
That’s why it’s not so surprising to hear Matloff pitch an alternative idea to dark matter — one which posits that stars exhibit an elementary form of consciousness as a way to best organize themselves throughout systems, galaxies, and the universe as a whole. Mashing up astrophysics and cosmology with ideas about panpscyhism and universal consciousness is extremely unusual. What isn’t unusual is learning that it comes from Greg Matloff.
Matloff also thinks his early time spent in the private industry has been its own source of inspiration. “Instead of going straight on to a Ph.D., I had a couple years working as an industrial physicist. When you do that, you start to think of things in many different ways. You come up with different sorts of solutions and ideas. If you’re a generalist, you have a grasp of how to think differently. If you’re a specialist, you have one way of thinking. I think the early years working in the private industry made a big difference.”
This, of course, may limit Matloff from an ability to, say, mathematically finesse ideas or models he’s working on. He won’t have the equations or numbers sitting in his toolbox when they’re needed. But as a generalist, Matloff also thinks he’s learned all kinds of tricks for how to pull out the information he needs, and that can lead to more novel, unconventional solutions to problems as well. The internet has certainly been a boon to that approach.
Since his initial meetings with Mautner, Matloff has worked in many different capacities to figure out the feasibility of interstellar travel through solar sails and other technologies. His 1989 book, The Starflight Handbook, is considered a seminal publication in the discussion of interstellar travel, including when it comes to solar sails.
Later on, Matloff began consulting for the European Space Agency for a project called the Interstellar Heliopause Probe, which from 1999 to 2006 investigated the feasibility of a mission to the heliopause region of the solar system (the boundary where the sun’s solar wind is stopped and terminated, designating the beginning of interstellar space). The proposal was basically to send a solo-photon sail spacecraft out to interstellar space (as far as 200,000 AU or more). One might consider it a precursor to the modern solar sail design being developed today by a few groups.
All of that expertise has also taken him down some more unusual routes. For example, one day, a dude named Buzz Aldrin rang up Matloff. Turns out, Aldrin really liked Matloff’s idea about the solar sail. Buzz, in the middle of writing his science fiction novel, Encounter with Tiber, with John Barnes, was telling the story of how a human historian boards a starship headed for Alpha Centauri, the home star system of a newly-discovered alien species. The ship is propelled with photon sails. Aldrin recruited Matloff as an unpaid scientific consultant for the novel, which was finally published in 1996.
When it comes to Breakthrough Starshot, Matloff — though an enthusiast of wild designs — is well aware of the practical limits. “We’ve never done anything with a laser that big,” he says. “One thing I pointed out was that that’s not going to work in this case, because you will melt any material in its path.
“You’ll have to probably use adaptive optics to basically maintain the laser beam on the entire sail all the way along its path.” Matloff discussed those limits at the International Symposium on Solar Sailing in Kyoto, Japan, in January. Breakthrough itself will be making a call out to scientists around the world to submit possible remedies that could make the mission work, such as a version of microwaves instead of a straight laser, a graphene, or other highly reflective materials with which to construct the sail, and more. (There are few people in a better position to evaluate those kinds of ideas than Matloff.)
Perhaps one of the most unique parts about Matloff is his foray into art — which, of course, is heavily influenced by his partner, the artist C Bangs. The two have worked together on several different projects, including the artist’s book, Biosphere Extensions: Solar System Resources for the Earth.
“They’re parallel disciplines, art, and science,” says Bangs. “The art world is now a very broad brush. You can do art using cell structures and lab work. Art is broadening out, which it always has.”
That broadening allows the pair to swim in the intersection of art and science and explore how the former can augment the latter to promote aesthetic ideas that are intrinsically part of curiosity and research. One such idea that Matloff and Bangs have thought about for interstellar missions since 2001 is the notion of adding a holographic message block to the solar sail.
“If you photograph a metastructure in three dimensions — a picture probably — and you project that on the appropriate substrate, the incident photons might act like they are being affected by a real three-dimensional mesh.”
The pair has gone as far as contacting holographic artist Martina Mrongovius, the director of the Center for the Holographic Arts in New York City, to see if a feasible design could be affixed to the Starshot solar sail in a future proposal.
“The Rainbow Hologram,” one of six images Bangs and Matloff designed as an idea for how to install an optical message on a solar sail-propelled spacecraft.
Clearly, the biggest advantage to applying a message to an interstellar probe is the ability to get a message across to any intelligent lifeforms that might happen to stumble on it. But more than that, such a fixture would also be a way to turn the spacecraft into something more representative of the human identity. Venturing into deep space is not simply a scientific expedition — it’s part of the existential condition of humanity to see what else is out there, and take our culture with us.
Such a design is just a small example of the unique way in which Matloff thinks about these kinds of problems. It’s not in the vacuum of “how do we get X from point A to point B,” but rather, what does it fundamentally mean for human to travel into the great unknown.
That’s part of what makes Matloff’s approach to astrophysics so unique from his peers. Les Johnson says The Starflight Handbook is “still, today, the absolute starting point for anyone who wants to think about interstellar travel.”
After he read it, he called up Matloff and brought him out to Huntsville, Alabama, for a NASA summer faculty fellowship to work on interstellar travel research and development.
Johnson says NASA’s culture “tends to be futuristic anyway,” attracting those kinds of minds who are primed about that. But he thinks Matloff’s work in engineering is boosted by his physicist’s perspective. “Engineers tend to think, ‘Can I build this?’ Physicists and astronomers tend to think, ‘Is this possible?’” This, according to Johnson, infuses Matloff’s technical work with a more visionary idea about what the future of space travel and humanity will be.
While Breakthrough and his continued work as an adjunct take up much of his time, Matloff and Bangs are also considering working on a graphic book about alien megastructures — inspired by the ongoing investigation into Tabby’s Star.
Although there are some things Matloff is less than optimistic about in the near future — “I don’t think we’re going to find a hyperdrive or something like that” — he generally feels positive that humans are about to make breakthroughs in many different things regarding astrophysics and space science.
“I’m very excited by the fact that interstellar travel and SETI are getting very well funded,” like the $100 million Milner is pouring into Breakthrough. “For a long period of time we’ll be able to get people from everywhere — private industry, academia, students, and experts alike — and have them look at something like this. That’s never happened before.”
But Matloff also thinks it’s important to regard these things not as an escape from an Earth which seems to be headed towards existential calamity, but as a curiosity-driven journey to learn more about the world.
Although many luminaries like Stephen Hawking have made a new reputation for ringing the bells for the end of the world, Matloff chooses “to be as optimistic as possible, because that’s how I can do my work.
“We don’t know how the world is going to turn out. But what I do know is, we have to keep working, and we have to keep trying, because if we all give up, it’s dead.”