Russian tech entrepreneur and billionaire Yuri Milner – along with physicist Dr. Stephen Hawking and other high-profile supporters of the mission – believe that humans are ready for the “next great leap”: to the stars.
In New York, Milner announced his most ambitious plan yet: a $100 million research program to send iPhone-sized, robot-like probes to nearby stars in one generation.
Here’s how it would likely work. A fleet of robot spacecraft or nanocrafts no bigger than an iPhone will be sent to Alpha Centauri, the nearest stellar system situated 4.37 light years away. A rocket would carry a thousand or so of these probes into orbit, where they would unfold their atom-thin, meter-wide sails and set off individually across the universe through potent laser beams from Earth.
In minutes they would be as far as the tight laser beam – more than 600,000 miles from the planet – and moving at one-fifth the speed of light.
The catch is it would take two decades for them to reach Alpha Centauri, and another four years for the data from outer space to be transmitted back home.
The 54-year-old Milner, who himself estimated that it could take two decades from now for the mission to take off, maintained that interstellar travel could be done.
“The human story is one of great leaps. Fifty-five years ago today, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. Today, we are preparing for the next great leap – to the stars,” Milner says prior to the announcement of the “Breakthrough Starshot” project.
Joining him on the board of directors for the lofty mission are English author and cosmologist Hawking as well as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Hawking emphasized humans’ unique ability to transcend limits, and that “our nature is to fly.”
Milner is initially pouring $100 million for research and development, but estimated that the project could cost up to $10 billion. He expressed hope for other investors to get on board.
The program, which seeks to demonstrate proof of concept for light-propelled nanocrafts, will be led by Pete Worden, former director of NASA’s AMES Research Center, with an advisory body that includes Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb as chair, British astronomer Martin Rees, and Nobel Prize winner Saul Perlmutter of UC Berkeley.
The laser array that would boost about one orbiting nanocraft each day would need to be constructed in a dry and high-altitude area in the Southern Hemisphere, likely on a Chilean or South African peak somewhere within sight of the twin stars of Alpha Centauri. The fastest spacecraft today would take about 30,000 years to reach these stars.
The groundbreaking robotic probes – without a decelerating ability – would quickly gather data on any planets in that star system and beam it back to Earth, before they eventually go out of communication range and into the pits of interstellar darkness.
The technology is hoped not just to contribute to solar system exploration, but also use the light beamer as a kilometer-scale telescope for astronomical ventures and detect asteroids crossing Earth at large distances.
However, there are likely issues at hand apart from full-scale funding: the cost and viability of hardware, where present-day price of laser power per watt could lead Breakthrough Starshot’s 100-gigawatt array to cost up to $1 trillion.
At present, too, there are no confirmed planetary targets in the Alpha Centauri yet, where a 2012 study claiming the discovery of an Earth-sized planet there was met with serious doubts. According to Worden, they are planning to mount a second, related investigation on the star system’s potential planets.
Milner – named after the Russian cosmonaut who became the first human in space – said he would be happy to witness the launch. He, however, added that headways in medicine and longevity will ultimately dictate whether he would live to see the actual results.