Stephen Hawking, Breakthrough Initiatives Tout 100 Million MPH Plan to Reach Alpha Centauri

No Comments » April 12th, 2016 posted by // Categories: Science & Technology




Stephen Hawking, Breakthrough Initiatives Tout 100 Million MPH Plan to Reach Alpha Centauri

Tue, 04/12/2016
Seth Augenstein, Digital Reporter


Today's press conference. Photo: Breakthrough Initiatives
Today’s press conference. Photo: Breakthrough Initiatives

Stephen Hawking and the Breakthrough Initiatives have a plan to reach a star other than the sun in about 20 years. 

A tiny nanocraft that may reach 20 percent of the speed of light on a lightsail will be able to reach Alpha Centauri in about 20 years of its launch, according to the “Breakthrough Starshot” announced today.

“The human story is one of great leaps,” said Yuri Milner, founder of the Breakthrough Initiatives. “Fifty-five years ago today, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. Today, we are preparing for the next great leap – to the stars.”

Alpha Centauri is the closest star to our solar system. But it is a daunting 25 trillion miles away – more than four years’ travel at the speed of light. The fastest spacecraft available today – heavy and fuel-driven – would take 30,000 years to get there, according to the announcement.

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But if the spacecraft is wafer-thin, and weighs just a gram – and is powered by a light beam through frictionless space – speeds may be achieved that are currently undreamed of.

The dramatic decrease in the size of technology, through smartphone innovations, make the gram-sized craft possible. It would be complete with cameras and communications equipment and photon thrusters, Milner said at a press conference this afternoon. The breakthrough in thin and lightweight metamaterials can allow sails several meters wide that have the thickness of a few hundred atoms.

Together, the craft may reach another star entirely, they said.

The Breakthrough Initiatives has budgeted $100 million to demonstrate the proof of concept for the light-propelled craft. They would not stop at a single launch, instead aiming to “bring economics of scale to the astronomical scale.” Eventually the cost of each launch is expected to fall to a few hundred thousand dollars, they said.

The launches would not happen for years, even if plans proceed immediately, officials said.

READ MORE: Russian Billionaire, Stephen Hawking Back Effort to Find Aliens

“Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever,” said Hawking. “Sooner or later, we must look to the stars. Breakthrough Starshot is a very exciting first step on that journey.”

Milner, Hawking and others announced the Breakthrough Initiatives last summer. The plan was to search for extraterrestrial life by listening to the universe, and sending out messages to someone or something that may be out there.

Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook is attached to the latest “Starshot” project.

“If this mission comes to fruition, it will tell us as much about ourselves as it will about Alpha Centauri,” said Milner. “Only by challenging ourselves will we find out if we, like the pioneers before us, have the ability and ambition to succeed.”

The “lightsail” concept was made popular by Carl Sagan several decades ago. Last year, the Planetary Society launched a CubeSat – a probe the size of a loaf of bread – out into the galaxy powered by a large photon sail.


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