Breakthrough Starshot: the 150m km/h spacecraft that will take us to Alpha Centauri

12 Apr 2016

Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking host press conference to announce Breakthrough Starshot. Image via Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

In one of the most ambitious space project announcements of the last few years, the Stephen Hawking and Yuri Milner-backed Breakthrough Initiatives has revealed plans for a spacecraft capable of travelling at 20pc the speed of light.

The Starshot spacecraft programme has been announced by Breakthrough Initiatives, an organisation founded by philanthropist Yuri Milner and iconic theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, to pump money into the latest research to potentially find evidence of extraterrestrial life in the universe.

First announcing a $100m fund to use advanced radio telescopes to begin searching for this evidence, today’s announcement marks a huge leap forward in what could be possible for humankind’s ability to reach further into space than ever before.

Earth to Alpha Centauri in 20 years

As part of the Starshot engineering project, $100m will now be assigned to develop nanocraft powered by laser beams that could reach almost incomprehensible speeds of up to 150 million km/h, or the equivalent of 20pc the speed of light.

More specifically, whichever Starshot-sailed spacecraft is the result of this ultra-advanced research project will have the honour of becoming the first spacecraft to visit the sun’s nearest stellar neighbour, Alpha Centauri.

Located 400 trillion km (four light years) away from us, indicating the scale at which we are talking about here, it is envisioned that it would take just 20 years to reach the star, making it possible for the same generation to see the fruits of its labour.

Breakthrough announcement

(L-R) Freeman Dyson, Emeritus Professor, Princeton Institute for Advanced Study; Ann Druyan, Producer, Co-Founder and CEO of Cosmos Studios; Avi Loeb, Frank B. Baird, Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University; Mae Jamison, Nasa Astronaut, Principal 100 Year Starship Foundation; and Peter Worden, Chairman, Breaktrough Prize Foundation, Former NASA Director. Image via Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Using advanced photonics to get us there

If we were to try such a journey using today’s most advanced spacecraft, it would still take 30,000 years for it would reach Alpha Centauri.

Detailing further information about the Starshot nanocraft, Milner stated at today’s launch that it will run on what is being called the StarChip, a gram-scale wafer capable of carrying cameras, photon thrusters, power supply, navigation and communication equipment, all at a cost comparable with today’s iPhone.

Citing the development of Moore’s Law – which was rendered pretty much obsolete by those within the semiconductor industry earlier this year – Milner said the craft could be powered by means of advanced photonics.

Using phased arrays of lasers, known as a ‘light beamer’, a 100GW beam could be aimed at the Starshot craft, allowing it to reach such incredibly high speeds, rather than using solar sails, which organisations such as NASA announced only today (12 April).

At the launch event were a number of the world’s leadng scientists and engineers, including interviewee and legendary astrophysicist, Freeman Dyson; Mae Jemison, Ann Druyan, Avi Loeb and Pete Worden.

The lightsail that would capture the photonic energy from the laser beam, meanwhile, will avail of advances made in nanotechnology to produce thin and lightweight metamaterials, enabling the fabrication of metre-scale sails no more than a few hundred atoms thick and at gram-scale mass.

Researchers working within the Breakthrough Initiatives organisation have predicted that the research and engineering phase will last a number of years, after which will begin development of the ultimate mission to Alpha Centauri, which will require a budget comparable to the largest current scientific experiments, perhaps in the region of $10bn.

Zuckerberg joins the Starshot board

That price tag will include the launch of a larger ‘mothership’ capable of carrying thousands of these laser-powered nanocraft to their destination, and also the building of a light-beamer approximately 1km in scale.

Speaking at the launch today, Prof Hawking said of Starshot: “Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever.

“Sooner or later, we must look to the stars. Breakthrough Starshot is a very exciting first step on that journey.”

Also announced today was the addition of a new member to the Breakthrough Starshot board, which includes Hawking and Milner, with Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg named as its newest member.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic