A bid to launch past our immediate solar system toward distant stars has united Yuri Milner, a Russian Internet entrepreneur, with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and famed physicist Stephen Hawking. The three have united to work on a program called Breakthrough Starshot that aims to fire a fleet of tiny spacecraft, each no bigger than an iPhone, towards the nearest star system: Alpha Centauri.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that the plan is to send a rocket “mother ship” into space carrying nearly a thousand small probes. The larger rocket would release these probes once in orbit while the tiny spacecraft would unfurl their hyper-thin sails. On Earth, powerful lasers would fire beams at the probes that would act like wind in a ship’s sails, propelling the small ships out into the universe.
Once hit with the lasers, the probes will move incredibly quickly, close to 600,000 miles in the first two minutes. Moving at a fifth of the speed of light, the probes are estimated to reach Alpha Centauri within 20 years.Once there, they would float around the star system beaming images and other information back to Earth.
While there hasn’t been a proven sighting of a planet in Alpha Centauri, scientists have not ruled out the possibility. The more hopeful ones even expect that there could be signs of life in the distant star system.
However, the chances of many involved with the project seeing it to completion remain dour. Milner and his associates currently expect it to take as many as 20 years for the mission to be ready for launch and another 20 years before the probes make it to distant Alpha Centauri. There will even be an additional four-year wait before any of the information beamed back by the probes will reach Earth.
“I think you and I will be happy to see the launch,” said Milner, 54, during an interview. Though he is hopeful that advances in medicine might allow him to live to see some of the results of Breakthrough Starshot. Milner, however, resolutely believes that it is possible. “We came to the conclusion it can be done: interstellar travel,” he said.
By joining the project, Stephen Hawking has added a great deal of credibility and prestige to the endeavor. “What makes human beings unique?” asked Hawking. “I believe that what makes us unique is transcending our limits.”
Hawking later added, “Today we commit to the next great leap in the cosmos, because we are human and our nature is to fly.”
One of the greatest obstacles to the project is money. Milner estimates that it will cost between $5 billion to $10 billion. He has personally invested an initial $100 million for research and development in the project and hopes that the money will lead to a foundation that will attract further investors.
The project, called Breakthrough Starshot, is given a detailed overview here.