With famed physicist Stephen Hawking at his side, an Internet investor on Tuesday announced that he is spending US$100 million on a futuristic plan to explore far outside the solar system.
Yuri Milner said the eventual goal is to send hundreds or thousands of tiny spacecraft, each weighing far less than 30g, to the Alpha Centauri star system. That is more than 2,000 times as far as any spacecraft has gone so far. The three stars that make up Alpha Centauri are the closest stars to the sun.
Propelled by energy from a powerful array of Earth-based lasers, the spacecraft would fly at about one-fifth the speed of light. They could reach Alpha Centauri in 20 years, where they could make observations and send the results back to Earth.
They might discover a planet or planets there — experts think there might be some, but there is no proven sighting yet — and possibly even find signs of life there or elsewhere, Milner and a panel of experts said at the announcement.
“We commit to the next great leap into the cosmos, because we are human and our nature is to fly,” Hawking said.
The project was announced on the 55th anniversary of the flight of Russian Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space. Milner was named after him.
Hawking has joined Milner and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg on the board of the project, called Breakthrough Starshot, which includes a team of scientists.
Milner said his US$100 million would go to establish the feasibility of the project and that a launch itself would require far more money.
Hawking is also part of a project Milner announced last year to use Earthbound telescopes to seek intelligent life in outer space.
For the Starshot project, the tiny spacecraft would be boosted into space by a conventional rocket and then set free individually. They would capture the energy from the Earthbound laser array with sails a few meters wide.
Milner said recent advances in electronic miniaturization, laser technology and fabrication of extremely thin and light materials have made such a mission realistic to consider.
“We can do more than gaze at the stars,” Milner said. “We can actually reach them.”
Avi Loeb, chair of Harvard’s astronomy department and member of the Starshot project’s management and advisory committee, told reporters that scientists have scrutinized the technical obstacles and “we don’t see any showstoppers... We think we can overcome all these challenges.”
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