Silicon Valley philanthropist Yuri Milner just single-handedly pushed our mission for interstellar travel to new levels by donating $100m for research into a 20-year-voyage to the nearest stars, Stephen Hawking announced. The voyage will be made at one-fifth the speed of light. Breakthrough Starshot will test the technologies necessary to send a robot spacecraft to the Alpha Centauri star system—at a distance of 4.37 light years.
A 100 billion-watt laser-powered light beam will accelerate a “nanocraft,” which will weigh just slightly more than a sheet of paper. It will be driven by a sail about the size of a child’s kite at about 60,000 km a second.
Milner is a Russian-born billionaire who began as a physicist. Last year, he and Professor Stephen Hawking announced another $100m Breakthrough Listen initiative to boost the search for extraterrestrial life beyond our solar system. Milner describes science as his “hobby.” The announcement came on the 55th anniversary of the first orbit of the planet by Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, from whom Milner gets his name.
“The human story is one of great leaps,” he said. “Today we are preparing for the next great leap—to the stars.”
“Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever,” Hawking added. “Sooner or later we must look to the stars. Breakthrough Starshot is a very exciting first step on that journey.”
But the journey has more challenges to face than funding. The committee— made up of Milner, Hawking and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg—has already identified 20 formidable challenges to overcome before any possible take off for the stars. But the trio insists they have Moore’s law working for them: the memory and processing power available on a computer chip doubles every 18 months or so, and new advances in nanoscience mean that fabrics are widely available.
One of the major hurdles in all space missions is the weight of fuel. Though the miniaturization of microelectronics makes it possible to pack the entire control system—sensors, camera, navigation equipment, photon thrusters, and more—onto a tiny silicon wafer and mount it on the ultra-thin sail. More than 50 years ago, researchers proposed that sunlight could power a space mission, noting that solar radiation alone could accelerate a spaceship with vast lightweight sails and no fuel at 100 kms a second. But even at that speed, the journey would take thousands of years. By increasing processing power, that spacecraft can become even smaller and lighter—and could be launched by the thousand from a mothership—allowing the space sailors to accelerate to a significant fraction of light speed.
“How do we transcend these limits? With our minds and our machines. The limit that confronts us now is the great void between us and the stars,” Hawking said at the project’s launch. “But now we can transcend it, with light beams, light sails, and the lightest spacecraft ever built we can launch a mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation. Today we commit to this next great leap into the cosmos because we are human and our nature is to fly.”
Source: The Guardian, Newsmax