- ESO/DSS 2
Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking are teaming up to send 100-million-mile-per-hour bots deep into space.
The $100 million initiative intends to develop light-propelled nanocrafts that will get us to Alpha Centauri, the next closest star system to the Solar System. Keep in mind that while it’s the next closest, it’s still roughly 25 trillion miles away. And they’re planning to make it happen in the next 20 years.
“Technologically, there’s a feasible path to getting to a star within our generation,” said former astronaut Mae Jemison at the initiative’s press conference.
Researchers are interested in Alpha Centauri because of its exoplanets, one of which that could possibly contain an Earth-like one that could be habitable.
The new space exploration initiative announced Tuesday is called the “Breakthrough Starshot.” And while it sounds far-fetched, the plan does have a number of reputable names on its leadership board.
They include Ann Druyan, the Creative Director of NASA’s Voyager Interstellar Message and a co-writer of the 1980 PBS documentary series Cosmos, Freeman Dyson, a Princeton theoretical physicist and mathematician, Mae Jemison, a former astronaut who now leads the global initiative “100 Year Starship,” Avi Loeb, a Harvard theoretical physicist, and Pete Worden, the former director of NASA AMES Research Center. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg will also be joining the group’s board, which includes Hawking and Milner.
Worden will lead the program; the team of engineers and scientists including those listed above will advise it.
‘We must look to the stars’
Stephen Hawking has mentioned previously that if humans want to survive as a species, we must colonize space. He emphasized that point again during today’s announcement.
“Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever,” Hawking commented in a press release. “Sooner or later, we must look to the stars.”
“Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever. Sooner or later, we must look to the stars.”
Milner, who’s worked with Hawking in the past, is best known for his investments in companies like Facebook, Spotify, and Twitter, but he’s put money into technology designed to search for extraterrestrial life before. In July of 2015, Milner announced he’d spend $100 million on massive telescopes that would search the skies for signs of life on other planets.
Ok, so what’s the plan?
The “Breakthrough Starshot” mission to Alpha Centauri would take decades and require a budget roughly the size of the largest scientific experiments currently in existence. It would have two main components:
1. Nanocrafts: Tiny, gram-scale bots – each of which would feature:
- A StarChip, a gram-scale wafer ferrying cameras, photon thrusters, power supply, navigation and communication equipmentA lightsail: a meter-scale, super-thin (a few atoms), super-light (gram-scale) sail
2. Light beamers: Phased arrays of lasers that could allegedly be scaled up to the 100 gigawatt level.
Once finished – ostensibly decades from now – the Breakthrough Starshot’s path to space might unfold in the following steps, according to Hawking and Milner:
Engineers would build a ground-based kilometer-scale light beamer at a high altitude. The engineers would then create a system capable of generating and storing a few gigawatt hours of energy per launch. Researchers would launch what they’re calling a “mothership” carrying thousands of tiny, iPhone-sized bots to a high-altitude orbit. Scientists would focus the light beam on the lightsails of the nanobots to accelerate each one, to the target speed of roughly a fifth the speed of light. The bots will snap images of planets and transmit them back to Earth. Scientists will use the same light beamer that launched the bots to continue pulling data from them.
The 20-year turnaround time might sound ambitious. But this afternoon, Milner said “For the first time we can say with conviction that it can be done in such timeframe.”
Watch the livestream below: