In what could be a huge step forward for space exploration, (or signal the destruction of mankind as we know it) the Breakthrough Starshot project aims to send a fleet of miniature probes to our neighboring star system, Alpha Centauri, at 100 million miles per hour, or 1/5th the speed of light, to “search for life in the Universe.”
Translation: They’re sending bots on a mission to look for aliens! And they’ll be traveling way faster and way farther than any craft or probe we’ve ever built before.
The big announcement came yesterday at a press conference in New York City, where famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking, along with Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and a team of top scientists revealed their plan to send a fleet of nano-bots the size of a postage stamp on an exploratory interstellar mission to Alpha Centauri, the closest star/planetary system to our own, which is 4.37 light years – or 25 trillion miles – away.
Aided by laser beams and miniature “light sails,” the bots would travel at previously unheard of speeds, and be able to reach Alpha Centauri in a mere 20 years time, where they would collect and transmit data back to Earth.
“We call it the Nanocraft,” Milner said, “Our interstellar sailboat.”
Even the fastest flying current spacecraft, New Horizons – which can traverse a mind-blowing one million miles in one day – would take tens of thousands of years to reach Alpha Centauri; the Breakthrough Starshot project aims to get there within a generation.
As to whether or not the nobel-prize-winning-theoretical-physicist Hawking believes we will actually discover aliens there, the answer is: maybe.
“The probability is low, probably,” he said, but added, “The discoveries of the [NASA] Kepler mission suggest that there are billions of habitable planets in our galaxy alone… There are at least a hundred billion galaxies in the visible universe, so it seems likely that there are others out there.”
The project is still in the funding phase and will take roughly 20 years to complete, so don’t expect to learn the outcome of the findings for at least 40 years from now.
But maybe that’s a good thing – since Hawking has previously expressed concern over humans making contact with aliens, warning that, “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans,” and adding, “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”
Well, that plus we’ve all seen Aliens, right?
Still, Hawking stressed the importance of interstellar exploration:
“Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever,” he commented, “Sooner or later, we must look to the stars.”
Yuri Milner has personally pledged $100 million toward the research and development phase of Breakthrough Starshot, which aims to raise $5-10 billion dollars worth of funding for completion of the project.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg will join Milner and Hawking on the board of directors, The program will be led by Pete Worden, the former director of NASA AMES Research Center, and a number of top scientists, engineers and space luminaries will serve on the management and advisory committee.
Let’s just hope that if they do discover extra-terrestrial life forms, they fall more into the E.T. category than the Independence Day variety.
While we wait for the aliens to arrive, have a listen to Stephen Hawking’s introduction to Breakthrough Starshot here: