Yuri Milner, an internet investor and science philanthropist, was named after cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who 55 years ago today became the first human to venture into space. Since that leap into the cosmos, humanity has traveled to the moon, and sent robots and spacecrafts to other planets in the solar system and beyond.
Today, Milner, accompanied by famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and a panel, announced the Breakthrough StarShot initiative, a $100 million research and engineering program aimed at sending a nanocraft on a fly-by mission of the solar system’s closest neighbor Alpha Centauri, which is four light-years, or 25 trillion miles, away. The announcement was made at the One World Observatory in New York City.
With this endeavor, the researchers aim to “leave the fuel behind,” as Milner put it. With current rocket propulsion technology, it would take humanity around 30,000 years to reach Alpha Centauri. Instead, the researchers want to use light-propelled nanocrafts.
It’s the “Silicon Valley approach to space travel,” Milner said.
Transformative trends in the fields of microfabrication, nanotechnology, and photonics have allowed this new venture. The nanocraft would consist of a StarChip (a gram-scale wafer that carries cameras, photon thrusters, power supply, navigation, and communication equipment), and a lightsail (built from thin and light-weight metamaterials on the meter-scale, no more than a few hundred atoms thick and at a gram-scale in mass). It would be powered by a phased array of lasers, known as a “light beamer.”
According to Milner, the StarChip can be mass-produced at the cost of an iPhone. And once the technology advances, the launch process is expected to only cost a few hundred thousand dollars.
Propelled by a power of 100 gigawatts, the nanocraft would accelerate to around 20 percent of light speed in a few minutes. That would allow the craft to reach Pluto in around three days, and Alpha Centauri around 20 years after launch.
“Today, we commit to this next great leap in the cosmos because we are human and our nature is to fly,” said Hawking.
There will be challenges along the way, as the team works to launch the nanocraft within the next generation. They have to keep in mind how interstellar dust particles and space debris might affect the nanocraft, perfect the laser array process, and figure out how to communicate images and data light-years back to Earth, among other challenges.
It’s certainly a moonshot project, but one that furthers the human story in the universe.
“What a mythical achievement,” said documentarian and writer Ann Druyan, who was on Tuesday’s panel and is known for her work on both “Cosmos” television series. “What an immaculate way to travel the cosmos.”
“Carl (Sagan) and I imagined human existence and human life as a kind of dandelion gone to seed in the cosmos,” she said. This is a “real potential manifestation of that dream.”
For more information on Breakthrough StarShot, go here.