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Hawking’s Ambitious “Breakthrough Starshot” Project Announced!

Posted by cirvine on April 12, 2016

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Today, the renowned astrophysicist, Stephen Hawking, unveiled an ambitious, $100 million project that may just be the key to finding extraterrestrial life in the universe and a new home for all humankind. And it sounds really, really cool.

The famed cosmologist, with the support of a board including a group of scientists, billionaire investor Yuri Milner and even Facebook’s own Mark Zuckerberg, are leading the project which they have coined “Breakthrough Starshot”.  The end goal of the mission is to travel to the Alpha Centauri system, which astronomers have predicted to have the most reasonable chance of having an Earth-like planet which we could survive on. Here is why getting to Alpha Centauri is such a big deal: although it’s our closest star system, it’s still 4.7 light years away and that’s trillions of kilometres away (nearly 300,000 times the distance between Earth and the Sun). Even with today’s fastest spacecraft, it would take about 30,000 years to get there.

Breakthrough Starshot aims to get there a lot sooner. Their first step is to build the prototype for a tiny, wafer-sized ‘nano-craft’ which will be attached to a super-thin sail. Together they will be launched into space aboard a mothership, and then propelled further into the stars by a laser light beamed from a high-altitude facility here on Earth. The hope is that the nanobots can fly at up to 20% the speed of light, which would mean they could make it to Alpha Centauri in just two decades!

So basically, picture tiny, interstellar sailboats surfing on lightbeams into the stars to find alien life and a new planet to call home. Insanely cool, right? But what does it do once it’s there? Well, the idea is that the nanocraft “could capture images of possible planets and other scientific data and send them back home in a beam of light,” says Milner. “If this mission succeeds, it will tell us as much about ourselves as it will about Alpha Centauri.”

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Yuri Gagarin, First Man in Space.  Source: http://www.space.com/11346-photos-yuri-gagarin-vostok1-human-spaceflight.html

Today's announcement comes on the 55th anniversary of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's historic launch on Vostok 1 in 1961, a mission that ushered in the era of human spaceflight. Milner, who was born in Moscow, has said he was named in honor of Gagarin.

I for one am super excited about this announcement and can hardly wait for twenty years when the little nanobots potentially hit Alpha Centauri. Who knows the kind of information they could bring back? Is there a new Earth out there waiting for us? Or is it already colonized by little green men? Only time will tell! 

Sources:
http://www.space.com/32546-interstellar-spaceflight-stephen-hawking-project-starshot.html?cmpid=514630_20160412_60440806&adbid=10153442771121466&adbpl=fb&adbpr=17610706465

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3536191/Stephen-Hawking-teases-Starshot-Rumours-suggest-alien-hunting-mission-use-tiny-light-propelled-satellites-scour-space.html