With their gaze firmly tilted toward the heavens, physicist Stephen Hawking and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner have joined forces to create Breakthrough Starshot, a wild, $100 million research and engineering program determined to lay the foundations for a future voyage beyond the stars. Hot on the heels of last summer's Breakthrough Listen, the duo's $100 million effort to scan the skies for radio and light signals emitted by aliens, comes this new proposal, which could have amazing ramifications for the science of deep-space travel.
Announced today at One World Observatory in New York City, Milner and Hawking's dream project is to reach Alpha Centauri, our nearest interstellar neighbor, just 20 years after launch using light-propelled nanocrafts that can travel at 20 percent of the speed of light. At that type of blazing relativistic speed, this robotic spacecraft would streak past Pluto in just three days, reaching Alpha Centauri's system two decades later. This project will be led by Pete Worden, former head of the NASA Ames Research Center, with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg serving on the foundation's board.
“For the first time in human history, we can do more than just gaze at the stars,” Milner said. “We can actually reach them. The Breakthrough concept is based on technology either already available or likely to be available in the near future. But as with any moonshot, there are major hurdles to be solved.”
Prototypes for this outer space odyssey were on display at today's press conference and include deploying a “Starchip,” a gram scale wafer carrying cameras, photon thrusters, power supply, navigation, and communication equipment. A meter-sized "Lightsail" only a few hundred atoms thick and weighing mere grams is the technology behind its propulsion system. Launched from Earth by a phased array of lasers, Milner further explained that the craft would be blasted into space using the combined power of over 100 Gigawatts, close to the total energy needed to lift the Space Shuttle.
"By directing that much energy at an object weighing just a few grams, we can theoretically accelerate said object up to 100,000,000 miles per hour—a thousand times faster than the fastest spacecraft today," Milner continued. "The idea is to launch a small fleet of craft toward Alpha Centauri, allowing us to perform many, many New Horizon-like flybys of our nearest neighbor’s potentially habitable real-estate. Here, at One World Observatory, we are launching a collaborative planetary endeavor. Only by challenging ourselves can we find out if we, like the pioneers before us, have the ability and ambition to succeed.”
Though there are still a complex number of technological and scientific hurdles still to be tamed, Milner and his ambitious team are confident in their endeavors and are soliciting contributions from the entire international scientific community, as well as the general public.
“It’s an ambitious project, but we don’t see any showstoppers or deal breakers based on fundamental principles,” said Avi Loeb, chair of the Harvard Center for Astrophysics and a co-sponsor of Breakthrough Starshot.
For more info on Breakthrough Starshot visit their official site here.
What do you think Milner and Hawking's idea to push miniature space probes attached to lightsails across the galaxy and do you believe they have a chance to realize their lofty dreams?