Stephen Hawking unveils Breakthrough Starshot: a plan to send tiny spaceships to Alpha Centauri

Hawking and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner unveil plans to send light-propelled spacecrafts 4.37 light-years away

Space travel is faster than it used to be, but still pretty slow. Our fastest current vessel, New Horizons – which made headlines last year for its amazing photographs of Pluto – runs at a speed of 58,536km/h. Thismeans it could travel from London to Sydney in around 15 minutes. That’s fast, but it still took nine and half years for New Horizons to reach Pluto, which is ‘just’ 327 light minutes away. Anything further presents a real problem to the impatient.

Space is big: there’s just no way of getting around it, both figuratively and – currently –literally. If we want to reach our next closest star, Alpha Centauri, we’re going to need to find a way of getting a lot faster than New Horizons, given it’s 4.35 light years away. At its top speed, it would take New Horizons around 78,000 years to arrive, and who even knows if humans will still be around by then to enjoy it?

We need some outside the box thinking, and thanks to Stephen Hawking and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, we might just have it within our lifetimes. Speaking at an event in New York yesterday, the pair announced the launch of project Breakthrough Starshot: a plan to send tiny robotic spacecrafts called ‘starchips’ on a scouting mission to Alpha Centauri.

How tiny is tiny? If you’ve got a book of first class stamps in your pocket, take a look at it now. Each starchip should be about the size of a postage stamp, weigh around a gram, and contain cameras, photon thrusters, a power supply, navigation and communications equipment. It makes the stamp’s USP of ‘having an adhesive back’ seem pretty weak in comparison, really.

These starchips will be attached to a lightsale, which would harness 100 gigawatts of energy from lasers based on Earth to reach speeds of up to 100 million miles per hour, or roughly 20% of the speed of light. That would make these tiny ships really nippy: while it took New Horizons nearly a decade to reach Pluto, these tiny vessels would be able to whizz past the dwarf planet in three days. At that pace, they would be able to begin searching for alien life in Alpha Centauri in around 2036, if they were to set off tomorrow.

Which they won’t, of course. The technology involved is all hypothetical, but the sums seems to add up, and it’s getting closer to being a reality, thanks to the $100m Milner is investing in the project, which is also backed by Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, and headed up by Pete Worden, NASA’s former AMES Research Centre Director.

The Breakthrough concept is based on technology either already available or likely to be available in the near future, but as with any moonshot, there are major hurdles to be solved,” explained Milner.

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