Russian-born tech mogul Yuri Milner and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking are charting a course to Alpha Centauri, the closest star system outside our Solar System, and they just launched a $100 million project to get there. Starshot, a new branch of their Breakthrough Initiatives program, will develop the technology to build a light-powered, sail-based ship that can travel 1,000 times faster than quickest spaceship currently available — or 100 million miles per hour.
“What makes human beings unique? There are many theories,” said Hawking at the announcement ceremony at One World Observatory in New York City. “Some say it’s language or tools; others say it’s logical reasoning…they obviously haven’t met many humans. I believe what makes us unique is transcending our limits.”
Last summer, Milner and Hawking launched the Breakthrough Initiatives, a two-project mission geared toward interacting with extraterrestrial life. One part focuses on detecting alien messages by purchasing time at two of the largest radio telescopes on the planet. The goal of the second objective was to design a message that could be delivered into space.
Today, Milner, Hawking and a panel of space experts expanded the Breakthrough Initiatives to include sending a futuristic spacecraft to Alpha Centauri. Located more than 25 trillion miles (four light years) away, Alpha Centauri consists of three stars. For perspective, the New Horizons probe, one of the fastest spacecrafts in history, would take nearly 80,000 years to reach this stellar triad.
Plus, the fuel required for the trip would weigh more than all of the stars in the Milky Way galaxy, according to Milner. He proposes an alternative:
“It’s very simple. Leave the fuel behind.”
Starshot wants to cut the travel time by engineering a nanocraft, a small spaceship propelled by a lightsail. But rather than catch sunbeams, the nanocraft’s sail would be pushed by beams emitted by a field of lasers planted on Earth.
Another key component is a so-called “starchip” — a computer chip about the size of a postage stamp that carries cameras, photon thrusters, power supply, navigation and communication equipment. During the ceremony, Milner displayed a prototype of the starchip, designed by Zac Manchester, a rocket scientist at Harvard University.
“This is the Silicon Valley approach to space. It can be held with two fingers and mass produced at the cost of an iPhone,” Milner said.
The light sail would require innovations in nanotechnology in order to fabricate material that is no more than a few hundred atoms thick with a mass of a handful of grams. The sheet would then need to be large enough to catch the array of laser beams — up to 100 million — being shot from Earth toward the tiny satellite. Philip Lubin, a physicist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, is part of the team developing this beam technology.
If successful, Milner expects the resulting nanocraft to travel at 20 percent of lightspeed. Breakthrough Starshot is an open-source project, and Milner called for researchers across the globe to contribute. All innovations will live in the public domain, he said, and be accessible to anyone who wants to use them. Milner expects the cost of the project to rival CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, which had a construction price tag of nearly $5 billion.
“The limit that confronts us now is the great void between us and the stars,” Hawking said. “But now, we can transcend it with light beams, light sails and the lightest spacecraft ever built. We can launch a mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation.”