Stephen Hawking and Russian billionaire announce mission to Alpha Centauri
Famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking and Russian businessman Yuri Milner announced on Tuesday, April 12, on what could be a revolutionary mission to our nearest star Alpha Centauri. The $100 million space project named Breakthrough Starshot aims to send a fleet of laser light-propelled nanocraft to our neighboring star system, within about 20 years of its launch, instead of 30,000 years.
Milner and Hawking revealed their plan during a press conference at One World Observatory in New York. The project is a research and engineering program aiming to demonstrate proof of concept for light-propelled nanocraft. These could fly at 20 percent of light speed and capture images of possible planets and other scientific data in Alpha Centauri system.
“The human story is one of great leaps. 55 years ago today, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. Today, we are preparing for the next great leap – to the stars,” said Milner, who is the founder of Breakthrough Initiatives that manages the program.
The project will be led by Pete Worden, the former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center. It will consist of world-class scientists and engineers like Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter, theoretical physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson, and theoretical physicist Avi Loeb. The board of this initiative will include of Hawking, Milner, and Mark Zuckerberg, Founder and CEO of Facebook.
The tiny gram-scale space vehicles that will be sent to Alpha Centauri will be comprised of two main parts: “StarChip” and “Lightsail”. “StarChip” will be a fully-functional space probe carrying cameras, photon thrusters, power supply, navigation, and communication equipment. “Lightsail” is designed to be as a meter-scale sail no more than a few hundred atoms thick and at gram-scale mass.
A phased array of lasers called “Light Beamer” will push the nanocraft, accelerating it to a velocity of roughly 20 percent the speed of light – in just a few minutes.
According to the project leaders, 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.
The neighboring system is 4.37 light-years (25 trillion miles) away and hosts a pair of stars named Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B.
The system also comprises Alpha Centauri C, also known as Proxima Centauri, and is a small and faint “red dwarf” – a tiny and relatively cool star which might be gravitationally bound to the duo. In 2012, the discovery of a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B was announced, but three years later a new report debunked this theory calling the previous finding a “ghost in the time series”. Moreover, in 2015, another study proposed the existence of another alien world accompanying the “B” star.
“Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever. Sooner or later, we must look to the stars. Breakthrough Starshot is a very exciting first step on that journey,” Hawking said.
If the fleet of spacecraft gets there, they will capture images from the system as well as other scientific data, and send them back to Earth using a compact onboard laser communications system. The mission will use the “Light Beamer” that launched the nanocrafts to receive data from them over four years later.
In the past, there have been projects that included sending unmanned interstellar spacecraft with a velocity of approximately 4.5 or even 7.1 percent the speed of light. Between 1973 and 1978, a study was conducted by the British Interplanetary Society to send a probe using a fusion rocket that would reach Barnard’s Star located 5.9 light-years away.
“We take inspiration from Vostok, Voyager, Apollo and the other great missions. It’s time to open the era of interstellar flight, but we need to keep our feet on the ground to achieve this,” Worden said.
Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.