Hawking and the $100m mission to the stars

Beam me up: Lasers will send the ‘nanocrafts’ 4.37 light years away. © Breakthrough Starshot

A formidable team of billionaires and scientists have announced a mind-blowing new project. Using nanotechnology and lasers, interstellar travel could be possible in a mere generation.

Fifty-five years ago, the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had just returned from the first ever orbit of the Earth. He was the first person to reach space, and an instant hero.

A few months later, Yuri Milner was born, and named after Russia’s pride and joy. This week, on the anniversary of Gagarin’s historic mission, the billionaire announced a project so ambitious that it would have been unthinkable to the original spaceman. He plans to send hundreds of tiny lightweight spacecrafts on a 25 trillion-mile voyage to Earth’s nearest star system, Alpha Centauri.

With current space technology, this journey would take 30,000 years. Milner says he will do it in 20. It is ‘the Silicon Valley approach to space flight.’

The plan is called Breakthrough Starshot, and it is backed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and the world-famous physicist Stephen Hawking. ‘The human story is one of great leaps,’ Milner said. ‘Today we are preparing for the next great leap — to the stars.’

The project relies on huge advances in microelectronics — enough to fit the control system, camera, power supply and navigation system onto tiny silicon chips, weighing a gram each. They will be attached to feather-light solar sails, around the size of a kite and only hundreds of atoms thick. The ‘nanocrafts’ will then be beamed by an array of 100 billion-watt lasers on Earth, accelerating them through space at one-fifth the speed of light, or 60,000km a second.

The team has already identified a series of ‘key challenges’ to overcome, including the project’s $10bn pricetag, the weight of the fuel, and finding a way to transmit data back to Earth.

But they are optimistic about the amazing potential of human ingenuity. ‘Gravity pins us to the ground but I just flew to America,’ said Hawking. ‘I lost my voice but I can still speak thanks to my voice synthesiser. How do we transcend these limits? With our minds and our machines.’

Reach for the stars

It is not the first time Hawking and Milner have collaborated on an ambitious project. Last year, they launched the Breakthrough initiatives Listen and Message, which are attempting to search for intelligent alien life. What dreamers! Is this not just a billionaire building toys, attracting attention and creating a very expensive form of entertainment for himself?

Genuinely not, say many experts. No scientist can write off these missions. As the project’s chairman, the astronomer Avi Loeb, puts it: ‘Looking is very different from going and visiting’. We must keep an open mind about the many wonderful things the universe has in store. After all, he says, ‘nature teaches us that its imagination is better than ours’.

You Decide

  1. Do you genuinely hope that we find alien life in our universe?
  2. Which is the greater miracle: nature or machines?

Activities

  1. Draw a diagram which shows how the Breakthrough Spaceshot technology will work.
  2. Milner’s Breakthrough Message project encourages debate about what we should say if we tried to contact another civilisation. It could be words, images, film, music or more. In groups, put together a message that you would like to send to an alien species.

Some People Say...

“Aliens will not originate from organic or biological life but from machines.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Giant lasers? Space kites? This sounds like science fiction...
It’s certainly a long way away from the spaceships we are used to seeing. But technology is advancing at a staggering rate — the team points out that ‘Moore’s law’ is on their side (the idea that the memory and power of computer chips doubles every 18 months or so). And with big names like Stephen Hawking on board, the project is being taken fairly seriously. Now, they just have to make it work.
When will that happen?
If it happens at all, they predict it will take a decade to solve the technical challenges, and another decade of construction. So it may be 40 years before one of the nanocrafts actually reaches another solar system. And that’s far, far sooner than anyone would have predicted before Starshot was announced.

Word Watch

Yuri Milner
A Russian entrepreneur and investor with shares in Facebook, Twitter, Spotify and many other tech firms. He studied theoretical physics at university and describes science as his ‘hobby’. He also funds the Breakthrough Prize, which honours scientific advances.
Alpha Centauri
The closest star system to Earth. Although it looks like a single bright star from the ground, it is actually two — known as Alpha Centauri A and B.
Silicon Valley
In the San Francisco Bay Area, famous for being the home of hundreds of technology companies and start ups.
$10bn
Milner has invested $100m of his own money for the initial stages of the project, but says that it could end up costing up to $10bn.
Listen
Breakthrough Listen is currently scanning one million of the closest stars to Earth, searching for radio or laser transmissions from other civilisations.
Message
If Breakthrough Listen succeeds, Message would be phase two: contacting that civilisation. It currently takes the form of a open competition to create a digital message which is ‘representative of humanity and planet Earth’.