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A Russian oligarch, Mark Zuckerberg, and Stephen Hawking walk into a bar… No this isn’t a joke, but a pretty cool space proposal. Their idea is to launch a fleet of laser-propelled “nanocrafts” that would swarm to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, in a 20-year voyage. It would take about four more years for the mini-probes to transmit photos and readings back to earth.
“The human story is one of great leaps,” said Yuri Milner, billionaire CEO of DST Global. “55 years ago today, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. Today, we are preparing for the next great leap — to the stars.”
The project is called Breakthrough Starshot (sounds like a bad Yes album) and requires at least $100 million to evolve from a pipe dream to a working plan. Then they’ll need up to $10 billion more (or 650.46 billion rubles) to actually get it off the ground.
The first step of the program involves building light-propelled “nanocrafts” that can travel at relativistic speeds—up to 20 percent the speed of light. At such high velocities, the robotic spacecraft would pass Pluto in three days and reach our nearest neighboring star system, Alpha Centauri, just over 20 years after launch…
The technology behind the billionaire’s ambitious proposal—of which prototypes were revealed today—includes a “Starchip,” a gram scale wafer carrying cameras, photon thrusters, power supply, navigation, and communication equipment. Propelling that miniature science laboratory is a “Lightsail,” a meter-sized sail that’s only a few hundred atoms thick and weighs a couple of grams. The light sail will be launched away from the Earth by a phased array of lasers, which Milner envisions carrying a combined power of over 100 Gigawatts, similar to the power needed to lift the Space Shuttle off Earth.
By directing that much energy at an object weighing just a few grams, we can theoretically accelerate said object up to 100,000,000 miles per hour—a thousand times faster than the fastest spacecraft today. The idea is to launch a small fleet of craft toward Alpha Centauri, allowing us to perform many, many New Horizon-like flybys of our nearest neighbor’s potentially habitable real-estate.
If this all sounds like the insanely ambitious fantasy of a starstruck billionaire, that’s because it is. But according to Milner, it’s also doable with technology not too far off. He believes we can be deploying our first nanocraft within a generation.
“The Breakthrough concept is based on technology either already available or likely to be available in the near future,” Milner said. “But as with any moonshot, there are major hurdles to be solved.”
It’s a starshot, not a moonshot, Yuri.
The most expensive part of this project is the massive array of earth-bound lasers which will propel the little suckers into the void. On their way, the probes could snap test pics of our own solar system from angles we’ve never seen.
What do you think, Ricochetti? Does this plan have a chance at success — either in tech or in the massive funding required?