NEW YORK — Stephen Hawking wants humanity to reach the stars.
The famed cosmologist, along with a group of scientists and billionaire investor Yuri Milner, unveiled an ambitious new $100 million project today (April 12) called Breakthrough Starshot, which aims to build the prototype for a tiny, light-propelled robotic spacecraft that could visit the nearby star Alpha Centauri after a journey of just 20 years.
“The limit that confronts us now is the great void between us and the stars, but now we can transcend it,” Hawking said today during a news conference here at One World Observatory.
“With light beams, light sails and the lightest spacecraft ever built, we can launch a mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation,” he added. “Today, we commit to this next great leap into the cosmos. Because we are human, and our nature is to fly.”
The Starshot spacecraft will consist of a wafer-size chip attached to a super-thin sail. This paired duo will be launched to space aboard a mothership, and then propelled to the stars by laser light beamed from a high-altitude facility here on Earth.
Such a craft, Milner said, could be accelerated up to 20 percent the speed of light — fast enough to make it to the Alpha Centauri system, which lies 4.37 light-years away, just two decades after launch. (It would take a conventionally propelled probe about 30,000 years to make such a trip.)
“We call it the Nanocraft,” Milner said. “Our interstellar sailboat.”
The Nanocraft “could capture images of possible planets and other scientific data and send them back home in a beam of light,” Milner added. “If this mission succeeds, it will tell us as much about ourselves as it will about Alpha Centauri.
“Breakthrough Starshot is based on technology either available or likely to be available in the near future,” Milner said, adding that all of its work is based on data in the public domain.
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