Yuri Milner, a billionaire from Russia, announced his proposal on developing a lightweight spacecraft capable of journeying about 40 trillion km through space toward Alpha Centauri, our nearest star and it's planets, at a conference held in New York City on April 12, 2016. He invested another $100 million toward the Breakthrough Starshoot project to prove such an undertaking is possible, and many famous scientists, including Stephen Hawking, have shown their support for the idea.
The spacecraft, so-called nanocraft, should weigh less than one gram, and have a solar sail. The strong lasers, which would be waiting in our planet's orbit would give the nanocraft an acceleration of 60 000 g over a couple of minutes. This would enable the craft to reach the nearest star in about 20 years at, approximately, 20% the speed of light.
“It’s the first time in human history that we can do more than just stare at the stars,” Milner said.
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Yuri, who was previously known for his investments into internet companies such as Facebook and Twitter, also founded the Breakthrough Prizes and Breakthrough Initiatives. He already invested $100 million into a 10-year long effort of looking for extraterrestrial intelligence and has now decided to support building the interstellar nanocraft.
“With light beams and a light sail and the smallest spacecraft ever created, we can launch a mission to Alpha Centauri in a generation,” Stephen Hawking, a famous physicist from the UK supported the idea at the press conference.
Along with Hawking, other respectable scientists such as Freeman Dyson from Princeton, Avi Loeb, an astrophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, and Pete Worden, an ex-director of NASA Ames Research Center, have expressed their support for the idea.
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Building such a spacecraft will require very advanced technology. However, Milner expressed his confidence such technology will become available in the coming decades.
A microfabrication project, according to Milner, driven by the cellphone industry, will work on the development of a Starchip, a spacecraft on a chip, equipped with cameras, photon thrusters, a power supply from the radionuclide source, navigation and communication units. By using the existing technology, such a chip would weigh 370 mg, and this mass is expected to fall down to 220 mg by 2030. By the time, the starchips could be produced at the present iPhone cost, Milner is convinced.
The sail material which shouldn't be over a couple of hundreds of atoms in thickness will require the use of nanotechnology while the necessary laser technology to power the craft still needs to be developed. According to experts, such technology should become available over the next couple of decades.
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The light beamer would consist of a kilometer long array of hundreds or even thousands of lasers, which would together produce a beam of 100 gigawatts in strength. Similar technologies are in use by the particle accelerators and fusion reactors.
"It’s the first new form of propulsion in a century," Worden said.
A number of such small crafts will be sent toward Alfa Centauri, and they will be equipped with various sensors in charge of investigating the planets, possibly orbiting the star.
"There is a big difference between physically exploring regions of space and observing them from a distance. I don’t see any deal-breakers in terms of fundamental physics. I think we can do this," Loeb said at the press conference.
If the idea proves successful, much more funding will be required to see the mission through.
"It will take a generation, but this is the first time we can say with conviction that it can be done on this timeframe," Milner concluded.
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