Stephen Hawking announces $100 million interstellar exploration project ‘Breakthrough Starshot’

Famed physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, Internet billionaire Yuri Milner, and a team of top scientists recently announced a new project designed to develop and create a tiny, prototype, laser-powered spacecraft capable of reaching Alpha Centauri in just two decades.

As Space.com and the Associated Press reported, Milner and Hawking officially announced the $100 million project, Breakthrough Starshot, during a media event held on Monday. The goal is to develop hundreds of spacecraft, each weighing far less than one ounce, and then send them to the neighboring star system – some 2,000 times further than any ship has ever gone.

The spacecrafts would utilize light beams and light sails for propulsion, and would be capable of reaching velocities of nearly one-fifth the speed of light. While the project may sound somewhat far-fetched, Hawking told reporters he believes that they will be able to accomplish their mission of exploring the Alpha Centauri star system “within a generation.”

“The limit that confronts us now is the great void between us and the stars, but now we can transcend it,” the astrophysicist added, according to published reports. “Today, we commit to this next great leap into the cosmos. Because we are human, and our nature is to fly.”

Project would search for potentially habitable planets, signs of life

Overcoming that limit will be no easy task. As the Washington Post pointed out, Voyager 1 currently holds the record for distance traveled by a human-built spacecraft. While it has been able to reach interstellar space, it would still need another 40,000 years to reach the closest star to our sun, and it would have ceased functioning long before then, the newspaper said.

So how does the Breakthrough Starshot team hope to make it to Alpha Centauri in just 20 years? The goal is to make a spacecraft that is roughly the size of a wafer, attach it to an extremely thin light sail, and launch it into orbit on a mothership. The tiny spacecrafts would then be shot into space by lasers beamed from a high-altitude, ground-based facility. If they can travel 20 percent the speed of light, they could complete the 4.37 light-year voyage in just two decades.

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The Laser Array in action. Credit: Breakthrough Starshot

The Breakthrough Starshot initiative is being oversee by the Breakthrough Prize Foundation, a Silicon Valley-backed consortium that presents awards to researchers in the fields of life science, physics and mathematics. By sending nano-sized spacecraft to Alpha Centauri, Milner, Hawking and their colleagues hope to see if there are any planets, especially potentially habitable ones, in the star system – and, yes, they plan to look for signs of life once they get there as well.

“There’s one underlying big theme, which is looking for other life in the universe,” Milner told the Post. “But this initiative also has a theme of pure exploration behind it.” He also explained to Space.com that the spacecraft “could capture images of possible planets and other scientific data and send them back home in a beam of light.” Should the mission succeed, he added, “it will tell us as much about ourselves as it will about Alpha Centauri.”

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Image credit: Breakthrough Prize Foundation

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