New Project Plans To Send A Spacecraft To Alpha Centauri In 20 Years

An artist's impression of the nanocraft in action. Breakthrough Starshot

A new project has been announced that will attempt to launch a small spacecraft to our nearest stellar neighbor, Alpha Centauri, and return images and data to Earth within a generation.

The ambitious proposal called Breakthrough Starshot was revealed today by billionaire Yuri Milner, Professor Stephen Hawking, and a host of other scientists and experts. The $100 million research project will seek to prove a proposed concept for interstellar travel, using a tiny satellite with a large laser-powered sail, with a plan to launch a mission to Alpha Centauri in the near future.

“Today, we commit to this next great leap into the cosmos,” said Hawking at a press conference today. “Because we are human, and our nature is to fly.”

The proposal involves using a tiny “nanocraft,” called StarChip, which could fit between two fingers, attached to a giant and sail. An array of lasers on Earth will then be used to direct a powerful laser approaching 100 gigawatts at this sail, accelerating it to 20 percent of the speed of light in a matter of minutes. 

Stephen Hawking was one of the experts taking part in the press conference. Breakthrough Starshot

Regular spacecraft would take more than 30,000 years to traverse the 4.37 light-years (25 trillion miles) to Alpha Centauri, but this nanocraft could complete the same journey in just 20 years, returning images and data to Earth of planets in the Alpha Centauri system.

Rather than just sending one of these nanocraft, Milner and co plan to launch hundreds, or even thousands of them. But they admit there are still a number of challenges to overcome, so they are opening the project to the public to seek advice on how best to move forward. As of yet, there is no launch date planned for the mission.

“The question is, can we reach the stars, literally?” Milner said at the press conference. “And can we do it in our lifetimes?”

Aside from Milner and Hawking, the project boasts some high-profile backers including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Ann Druyan, the widow of the late Carl Sagan, who proposed the idea of a solar sail in 1976. “But we didn’t think of making one so small,” said Druyan. The program will be led by Pete Worden, former director of NASA’s AMES Research Center.

Check out a video of the proposal in action above. Breakthrough Starshot

This is the latest Breakthrough Prize from Milner and Hawking, with a previous project from the two being the groundbreaking $100 million Breakthrough Listen campaign, one of the most extensive searches for intelligent extraterrestrial life to date.

Breakthrough Starshot also aims to help answer if we are alone in the universe, by studying the planets of Alpha Centauri to look for signs of life.

It’s certainly an interesting proposal. Truth be told, similar technology has been touted before, but with Milner’s financial backing, perhaps this is an interstellar project that can actually get off the ground, and complete an incredible mission once never thought possible.

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