Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has teamed up with Russian venture capitalist Yuri Milner and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to announce a new project for exploring Alpha Centauri, our nearest neighboring star system. The Project is known as Breakthrough Starshot, and its aim is to explore the technologies needed to develop a nanocraft – a gram-scale light-powered spacecraft capable of reaching Alpha Centauri in just 20 years.
“Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever,” Hawking writes in an email to reporters at CNET. “Sooner or later, we must look to the stars. Breakthrough Starshot is a very exciting first step on that journey.”
Milner has already invested US$100 million into creating a system that could propel a tiny “nanocraft” to 20 percent of the speed of light. Pete Worden, the former director of NASA’s AMES Research Center, will be leading the project.
Alpha Centauri stands 4.37 light-years away (25 trillion miles) from Earth. Even with our fastest propellant-fuelled spacecraft, the journey would take around 30,000 years. But Hawking and Milner are seeking to develop a system that would get there 1,000 times faster; that is – instead of burning up heavy rocket fuel, they will be using light for propulsion.
“For the first time in human history we can do more than just gaze at the stars,” said Milner. “We can actually reach them.”
The “Starchip” is the name given to the spacecraft, and it’s around the size of a postage stamp. Though the “Starchip” weighs only around a gram, it will contain cameras, photon thrusters, a power supply, and navigation and communication equipment. The spacecraft, which can literally fit in the palm of your hand, will be attached to an ultralight and thin ‘Lightsail,’ which then will be used to propel the Starchip.
Lightsail, in fact, is a larger version of the Starchip launched in 2015 that weighs only a couple of grams. Lightsail generates thrust by being pushed by particles of light. Well, for this to put into practice, Earth-based light beaming structure is needed. Milner and Hawking are also planning on using a giant laser array to propel their Starchip toward Alpha Centauri.
“The Breakthrough concept is based on technology either already available or likely to be available in the near future,” Milner said. “But as with any moonshot, there are major hurdles to be solved.”