Stephen Hawking announces Breakthrough Starshot at One World Observatory in New York City. (© Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Breakthrough Prize Foundation)
The mission is called Breakthrough Starshot and that’s exactly what the unlikely triumvirate of Stephen Hawking, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg want to do: shoot thousands of mini spaceships to Alpha Centauri, our nearest star system, to look for alien life.
Why an armada of mini spacecraft?
Alpha Centauri is 4.37 light years away (that’s a mind-boggling 25 trillion miles) and normal would take nearly 30,000 years to reach it using current space technology. It’s safe to say we would never learn whether they found alien life or not at those speeds.
But Hawking and co have a different technique in mind - pointing a 100 gigawatt light beam onto lightsails only a few hundred atoms thick billowing from ultra small and light StarChips.
This technique will make them travel at a fifth of the speed of light, meaning they could reach Alpha Centauri within only 20 years!
And if they find life?
Scientists believe that there are habitable planets in Alpha Centauri and are working on instruments to pick them out over the coming years. The StarChips will be equipped with small cameras and other scientific instruments to collect data when they fly by the planets.
They’ll send the data back via the light beams and after a further four years we’ll know what they found.
“If this comes to fruition it will tell us as much about ourselves as about Alpha Centauri,” says Yuri Milner. “For the first time in human history we can do more than just gaze at the stars. We can actually reach them.”
When the StarChips are going to launch and send the first alien photos back to Earth is still written in the stars, so until then we’ll have to be satisfied watching little green men on TV – but we’ll let you know if anything happens out there in the meantime.