Stephen Hawking has teamed up with Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and Mark Zuckerberg to launch the most ambitious alien-hunting mission in history.
The $100m project, called Breakthrough Starshot, will rely on tiny so-called ‘nanocraft’ flying on sails pushed by beams of light through the universe.
They will travel to the Alpha Centauri star system 25 trillion miles (4.37 light years) away on a twenty year mission to look for alien life.
‘For the first time in human history, we can do more than look at the stars, we can reach them,’ said Yuri Milner, founder of the Breakthrough Initiatives.
Each of these ‘interstellar sailboats’ is expected to carry cameras and a built in GPS to search deep space for habitable planets.
’55 years ago today, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space.
‘Today, we are preparing for the next great leap.’
‘Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever,’ commented Stephen Hawking, ‘Sooner or later, we must look to the stars.
‘Breakthrough Starshot is a very exciting first step on that journey.
‘With light beams, light sails and the lightest spacecraft ever built we can launch a mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation,’ said Hawking.
The $100 million research and engineering program will seek proof of concept for using light beam to propel super lightweight nanocraft to 20 per cent of light speed.
A possible fly-by mission could reach Alpha Centauri within about 20 years of its launch, Milner said, and also revealed Mark Zuckerberg is joining the project’s board.
These craft are designed to take images of planets and other scientific data in our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, just over 20 years after their launch.
Astronomers estimate that there is a reasonable chance of an Earth-like planet existing in the ‘habitable zones’ of Alpha Centaur’s three-star system.
‘Today we commit to this next great leap into this cosmos, because we are human and our nature is to fly.’
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.
‘We take inspiration from Vostok, Voyager, Apollo and the other great missions,’ said Worden.
‘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, capitalising on exponential advances in certain areas of technology since the beginning of the 21st century.
Nanocrafts are gram-scale robotic spacecrafts comprising two main parts: A Starchip and Lightchip.
‘Starchip is about the size of a postage stamp, although a little bit thicker. It can be massed produced at the cost of an iPhone,’ said Milner.
The light beamer is modular and scalable.
Once it is assembled and the technology matures, the cost of each launch is expected to fall to a few hundred thousand dollars.
The research and engineering phase is expected to last a number of years.