Stephen Hawking’s stunning claim: I’ll use lasers to get a robot to a star

Stephen Hawking’s stunning claim: I’ll use lasers to get a robot to a star

Hawking's StarShot mission to Alpha Centauri has attracted lots of excitement -- and skepticism.

Stephen Hawking is willing humanity to reach deep into space, and he’s backing a project that would send a probe to the nearby star Alpha Centauri in just 20 years … using lasers.

Called Breakthrough Starshot, the project would aim to build a tiny, light-propelled robotic spacecraft that could make the 4-light-year journey to Alpha Centauri — the closest star other than our sun — in just two decades, according to a Breakthrough Initiatives statement.

A group of scientists as well as billionaire investor Yuri Milner are also joining in on the $100 million project. Hawking said in a news conference that mankind is limited by the “great void” of space and it is key for us to figure out how to “transcend” it.

To do that, Hawking said we can use light beams and light sails, which would propel an incredibly light spacecraft at great speeds for incredible distances, allowing us to reach another star within our lifetimes.

A wafer-size chip would be attached to a very thin sail, and then launched aboard a mothership that would be propelled by laser light beamed from a facility on Earth. This spacecraft could reach 20 percent of the speed of light.

“The Alpha Centauri star system is 25 trillion miles (4.37 light years) away,” Breakthrough Initiatives said in the statement. “With today’s fastest spacecraft, it would take about 30,000 years to get there. Breakthrough Starshot aims to establish whether a gram-scale nanocraft, on a sail pushed by a light beam, can fly over a thousand times faster. It brings the Silicon Valley approach to space travel, capitalizing on exponential advances in certain areas of technology since the beginning of the 21st century.”

“Breakthrough Starshot aims to bring economies of scale to the astronomical scale,” it adds. “The StarChip can be mass-produced at the cost of an iPhone and be sent on missions in large numbers to provide redundancy and coverage. The light beamer is modular and scalable. Once it is assembled and the technology matures, the cost of each launch is expected to fall to a few hundred thousand dollars.”

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