World-famous theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking and Russian businessman Yuri Milner on Tuesday announced the launch of $100 million space exploration project Breakthrough Starshot, sending a fleet of spacecraft to Alpha Centauri. The research and engineering program will seek proof of concept for using light beam to propel gram-scale ‘nanocraft’ to 20 percent of light speed. A possible fly-by mission could reach Alpha Centauri within about 20 years of its launch.
“The human story is one of great leaps,” said Milner, founder of the Breakthrough Initiatives. “55 years ago today, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. Today, we are preparing for the next great leap - to the stars.”
Milner was joined by Hawking at One World Observatory in New York to announce a new Breakthrough Initiative focusing on space exploration and the search for life in the Universe.
"Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever," Hawking said, “Sooner or later, we must look to the stars. Breakthrough Starshot is a very exciting first step on that journey.”
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.
“We take inspiration from Vostok, Voyager, Apollo and the other great missions,” Worden said, “It’s time to open the era of interstellar flight, but we need to keep our feet on the ground to achieve this.”
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.
Astronomers estimate that there is a reasonable chance of an Earth-like planet existing in the ‘habitable zones’ of Alpha Centauri’s three-star system. A number of scientific instruments, ground-based and space-based, are being developed and enhanced, which will soon identify and characterize planets around nearby stars. A separate Breakthrough Initiative will support some of these projects.
Avi Loeb, chair of Harvard's astronomy department and member of the Starshot project's management and advisory committee, told reporters that scientists have scrutinized the technical obstacles and "we don't see any showstoppers.... We think we can overcome all these challenges."
At the heart of the project will be the starchip and lightsail. The great hurdle in all space missions is the cost of launch and the weight of fuel. The headlong miniaturization of microelectronics means that it might be possible to pack the entire control system, the sensors, camera, navigation equipment, photon thrusters, transmitter and power supply onto a tiny silicon wafer, and mount it on an ultra-thin sail weighing only grams, that would respond to the pressure of light.
This is like a sail on a boat - but it is pushed along by light rather than the wind. A giant laser on Earth would give each one a powerful push, sending them on their way to reaching 20 percent of the speed of light.
Last year, Hawking and Miller announced Breakthrough Listen - the $100 million initiative to find signs of intelligent life in the universe. The program goes along with Breakthrough Message, crafting the best messages humanity could send to alien civilizations, while Breakthrough Listen is a 10-year search for extraterrestrial intelligence initiative.
Breakthrough Listen uses two of the most powerful telescopes on the planet to listen, across multiple frequencies, to the signals within the universe.