Science

Stephen Hawking and Billionaire to Send Tiny Probes to Nearest Solar System

Sure, we can all come up with countless plans to send off weird contraptions to nearby solar systems and discover alien inhabited planets. Sure. We’ve watched Star Wars and Star Trek and all that jazz. But to actually come up with the science and the money to create something that would even brush that surface… well, that just seems imposible.

Yuri Milner, a Russian billionaire and internet entrepreneur, has partnered up with Stephen Hawking, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, to start a project dubbed ‘Breakthrough Starshot’. Milner will be dedicating $ 100 million for this project which involves sending out a fleet of teeny tiny probes in orbit around our neighboring system, Alpha Centauri. And as much as Milber has money and Hawking has brains, they are hoping their initiative will encourage other philanthropists, scientists, and governments to join. So far, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has joined Hawking on the board of directors. Also, Pete Worden, former director at NASA, has joined them as executive director. Not to mention several other physicists, astronauts, and astrophysicists who have joined the initiative, as well.

Now let’s remind ourselves that even Voyager 1, which is now 11 billion miles away, won’t come close to another solar system before 40,000 years. So how does this project ‘Breakthrough Starshot’ work?

Well, to start with, they will have to send a mother ship full of nano-bots into a high altitude orbit. It will then release hundreds of bot, or ‘starchips’, of which each costs approximately the as much as an iPhone and comes in the size of a postage stamp. How cute would a thumb-size iPhone space-bot be?! Now, propelling these bots into space requires energy supplied by a ground based laser, which would accelerate them to one fifth the speed of light, that’s around 100 million miles/hour. At that pace, the probes will reach Alpha Centauri which is 4.37 light years away in 20 years. Each of these probes is equipped with a 2 megapixel cameras and starfinders which will guide them towards inhabitable planets in the system.

But why Alpha Centauri – other than its cool sci-fi name that is? Well, scientists think it’s interesting as it has 3 main stars: Alpha Centauri A and B which orbit each other, and Proxima Centauri which may orbit A and B. But what’s more interesting is that scientists an Earth-like planet may exist in this system.

Sure. This all sounds awesome in theory, but the scientists realize they have huge challenges ahead of them. To start with, the $ 5 to 10 billion budget needed to execute this project is problematic. Also, another huge problem is the lasers that need 100 gigawatts – equivalent to 100 times the power output of a nuclear power plant – to power just one probe. Moreover, each probe needs to survive the pull that is 600,000 greater than gravity as they are propelled into space.

But regardless of all these challenges, Milner remains positive; he says he thinks it is possible to develop the science and technology needed to make this project a success. He also notes that with a reasonable battery, array, and power station for the lasers they can propel one probe a day for a year. Hence, it is very clear that loads of time and money are needed to develop the science that would make this mission a success. But until then, the greatest minds on Earth shall be working together in order to make this a reality.