Stephen Hawking is willing humanity to reach deep into space, and he’s backing a project that would send a probe to the nearby star Alpha Centauri in just 20 years … using lasers.
Called Breakthrough Starshot, the project would aim to build a tiny, light-propelled robotic spacecraft that could make the 4-light-year journey to Alpha Centauri — the closest star other than our sun — in just two decades, according to a Breakthrough Initiatives statement.
A group of scientists as well as billionaire investor Yuri Milner are also joining in on the $100 million project. Hawking said in a news conference that mankind is limited by the “great void” of space and it is key for us to figure out how to “transcend” it.
To do that, Hawking said we can use light beams and light sails, which would propel an incredibly light spacecraft at great speeds for incredible distances, allowing us to reach another star within our lifetimes.
A wafer-size chip would be attached to a very thin sail, and then launched aboard a mothership that would be propelled by laser light beamed from a facility on Earth. This spacecraft could reach 20 percent of the speed of light.
The statement is below:
New York Tuesday, April 12 Internet investor and science philanthropist Yuri Milner was joined at One World Observatory today by renowned cosmologist Stephen Hawking to announce a new Breakthrough Initiative focusing on space exploration and the search for life in the Universe.
Breakthrough Starshot is a $100 million research and engineering program aiming to demonstrate proof of concept for light-propelled nanocrafts. These could fly at 20 percent of light speed and capture images of possible planets and other scientific data in our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, just over 20 years after their launch.
The program will be led by Pete Worden, the former director of NASA AMES Research Center, and advised by a committee of world-class scientists and engineers. The board will consist of Stephen Hawking, Yuri Milner, and Mark Zuckerberg.
Ann Druyan, Freeman Dyson, Mae Jemison, Avi Loeb and Pete Worden also participated in the announcement.
Today, on the 55th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering space flight, and nearly half a century after the original ‘moonshot’, Breakthrough Starshot is launching preparations for the next great leap: to the stars.
The Alpha Centauri star system is 25 trillion miles (4.37 light years) away. With today’s fastest spacecraft, it would take about 30,000 years to get there. Breakthrough Starshot aims to establish whether a gram-scale nanocraft, on a sail pushed by a light beam, can fly over a thousand times faster. It brings the Silicon Valley approach to space travel, capitalizing on exponential advances in certain areas of technology since the beginning of the 21st century.
Nanocrafts are gram-scale robotic spacecrafts comprising two main parts:
– StarChip: Moore’s law has allowed a dramatic decrease in the size of microelectronic components. This creates the possibility of a gram-scale wafer, carrying cameras, photon thrusters, power supply, navigation and communication equipment, and constituting a fully functional space probe.
– Lightsail: Advances in nanotechnology are producing increasingly thin and light-weight metamaterials, promising to enable the fabrication of meter-scale sails no more than a few hundred atoms thick and at gram-scale mass.
2. Light Beamer
– The rising power and falling cost of lasers, consistent with Moore’s law, lead to significant advances in light beaming technology. Meanwhile, phased arrays of lasers (the ‘light beamer’) could potentially be scaled up to the 100 gigawatt level.
Breakthrough Starshot aims to bring economies of scale to the astronomical scale. The StarChip can be mass-produced at the cost of an iPhone and be sent on missions in large numbers to provide redundancy and coverage. The light beamer is modular and scalable. Once it is assembled and the technology matures, the cost of each launch is expected to fall to a few hundred thousand dollars.
Path to the stars
The research and engineering phase is expected to last a number of years. Following that, development of the ultimate mission to Alpha Centauri would require a budget comparable to the largest current scientific experiments, and would involve:
– Building a ground-based kilometer-scale light beamer at high altitude in dry conditions
– Generating and storing a few gigawatt hours of energy per launch
– Launching a ‘mothership’ carrying thousands of nanocrafts to a high-altitude orbit
– Taking advantage of adaptive optics technology in real time to compensate for atmospheric effects
– Focusing the light beam on the lightsail to accelerate individual nanocrafts to the target speed within minutes
– Accounting for interstellar dust collisions en route to the target
– Capturing images of a planet, and other scientific data, and transmitting them back to Earth using a compact on-board laser communications system
– Using the same light beamer that launched the nanocrafts to receive data from them over 4 years later.
These and other system requirements represent significant engineering challenges, and they can be reviewed in more detail online at www.breakthroughinitiatives.org/. However, the key elements of the proposed system design are based on technology either already available or likely to be attainable in the near future under reasonable assumptions.
The proposed light propulsion system is on a scale significantly exceeding any currently operational analog. The very nature of the project calls for global co-operation and support.
Clearance for launches would be required from all the appropriate government and international organizations.