Physicist Stephen Hawking and billionaire Yuri Milner have announced plans to build a revolutionary, $100 million dollar spacecraft capable of reaching Alpha Centauri within our lifetimes. Together with an all-star team, including physicist Freeman Dyson; COSMOS founder Ann Druyan; Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb; astronaut Mae Jemison, and former NASA researcher Pete Worden, the team believes they can be ready to “launch a mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation.”
The plan involves sending a postage sized spacecraft, which is attached to a yard-wide sail, nearly 4.3 light years away (25 trillion miles) into Alpha Centauri – the closest star system to our own. The fastest spacecraft in existence today, known as New Horizons, would take nearly 78,000 years to reach the Alpha Centauri System, given its current capabilities. The proposal laid out on Apr. 12 estimates this new ‘starshot spacecraft‘ could reach the star system in a fraction of the time, within just 20 years – using lasers to push the craft to nearly 20% of the speed of light.
The first $100 million is being put forward by Yuri Milner for research and development purposes to get the program up and running, but the team fully understands the technology for a launch currently does not exist. For the program to come to fruition, the team would “require a budget comparable to the largest current scientific experiments.” To give an idea as to what this budget might look like, the team cited The Large Hadron Collider, which costs about $1.1 to $1.3 billion dollars annually.
As for the cost of the ‘StarChip’ craft itself, the cost is incredibly small. According to project developers, the cost to build a single craft would be comparable to the cost of building a modern smart phone – something the team points to as one of the most crucial elements of their proposal. Once the infrastructure to propel the craft on Earth is complete, given the low cost of the spacecrafts, we could literally send thousands to any targets we could think of. For example, it would only take 3 days for a ‘Starshot SpaceChip’ to reach Pluto.
The project is still a ‘concept’ and the designers have revealed a detailed list of several challenges which must be met if this is going to become a reality. The leaders admit they will be relying heavily on what is known as Moore’s Law — specifically, an observation that the number of transistors on a chip tends to double every couple of years, or in general, the belief that computing hardware improves at an exponential rate. The StarChip spacecraft will attempt to cram 4 photon thrusters, 4 cameras, 4 processors, a battery, a radioisotope power manager, and protective insulation covering into a “gram-scale wafer” device the size of a postage stamp. This would require nano-technology that currently does not exist. But given the proper amount of funding, in conjunction with Moore’s Law, theoretically all of this could be possible ten years from now – within a generation.
“What makes human beings unique? There are many theories. Some say it’s language or tools; others say it’s logic or reasoning. They obviously haven’t met many humans (jokingly)
I believe what makes us unique is transcending our limits. Gravity pins us to the ground, but I just flew to America. I lost my voice, but I can still speak, thanks to my voice synthesizer. How do we transcend these limits? With our minds — and our machines.
The limit that confronts us now is the great void between us and the stars. But now we can transcend it. With light beams, light sails and the lightest spacecraft ever built, we can launch a mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation.” – Steven Hawking –
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