Russian billionaire internet investor Yuri Milner, recently announced a project known as Breakthrough Starshot which aims to send probes to the nearest solar system to our Sun. This is no sci-fi plot or exercise in theoretical physics. This is a serious interstellar exploration programme. So serious in fact that Milner has invested $100 million to make this dream a reality within a generation.
Yuri Milner’s vision is to use laser light to propel a series of probes into space to travel 25 Trillion miles, reaching their destination of Alpha Centauri within 20 years of departure. To truly appreciate how mind blowingly amazing this concept is, it is worth considering what it would take to reach Alpha Centauri with current technology. The New Horizons probe that photographed Pluto in 2015, is hurtling towards the edge of our solar system at a speed of approximately 1,000,000 miles per day. At that rate it would take little over 10,000 years for the New Horizons probe to reach Alpha Centauri.
To date the most brilliant minds have all agreed it is simply not possible to adequately power a starship that could cross interstellar space to explore another star system. The theories that are remotely closest to being realistic involve using a kilometre wide solar sail that would use solar winds to maintain adequate thrust to navigate through interstellar space. Even with a giant solar sail, a starship like this would need more power than all the power that can be possibly created on planet Earth combined. Fusion power may some day possible produce enough energy. The only minor drawback to fusion power is that it hasn’t yet been invented.
Yuri Milner doesn’t plan to build a super starship, he plans to build a nano mothership containing hundreds of gram sized sensors that can capture data and images once in orbit of a planet in the habitable zone of our neighbouring system. This tiny mothership would be small and light enough to be launched into space by a giant earth based laser beam. If launched at speeds approaching the speed of light, Milner’s probe would pass Mars within an hour and would shoot by Pluto within a day. As it flies towards the edge of our solar system a second probe would be released which would align with the laser light and be propelled beyond the next stage of the journey. This process would be repeated until we reach our destination. By not relying on a single vessel to complete the full journey we would greatly decrease the chances of space dust, ice or rock destroying a probe before it can reach it’s destination. The video below demonstrates how this will work.
At a press conference in New York Milner was joined by renowned physicists Freeman Dyson and Stephen Hawking. Hawking, the worlds most famous cosmologist, endorsed this project by saying, “We can do more than just gaze at the stars, we can actually reach them.” It is estimated that we could possibly build a laser big enough in the next 20 to 30 years. Add another 20 years for a probe to reach it’s destination with another 4 years for the first images to reach Earth. Not only is it possible we could reach our nearest star, but it could happen before the end of this century. Any of us who are lucky enough to live another 50 years may witness this, whilst our children and grandchildren will almost certainly see photographs of distant worlds in Alpha Centauri that may end up becoming the next ‘blue marble’ to be inhabited by Humans.