In the 17th century, Johannes Kepler dreamed of sails enabling us to explore space on a solar breeze.
Now, 400 years later, a $100 million initiative launched by Stephen Hawking and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner includes a plan to use solar sails to search for life in parts of the universe that, until now, have been far out of our reach.
Instead of riding on solar winds, as Kepler envisioned, the solar sails we’ve used to this point have actually powered by the sunlight itself. The idea behind “Breakthrough Starshot” is that to push the boundaries of space exploration, we need stronger winds and smaller boats.
Using advances in microfabrication, nanotechnology and photonics, “Breakthrough Starship” will create nanocrafts that can move at 20% the speed of light. Spacecrafts moving at this speed would pass by Pluto in three days, which is a quick blink compared to the 9.5 years it took New Horizons to reach this distance.
The nanocrafts would be made of a starchip the size of a postage stamp, which would carry the power supply, cameras, a photon Thruster and navigation and communication equipment.
A lightsail, only a few meters wide and weighing only a few grams, would be attached to the starchip.
These sails would be propelled by light, but a source more powerful than the sun is needed. Instead, an array of small lasers located on earth which will form one powerful beam. When this beam is pointed at the lightsail, the spacecraft is accelerated through space.
The Silicon Valley approach to space travel
Milner referred to this as the Silicon Valley approach to space travel. The nanocrafts can be mass produced and sent out at the rate of a few hundred per year. And because of their abundance, these nanocraft can be sacrificed, sent to explore parts of the universe with dangerous conditions.
Hawking and Milner have their eyes on Alpha Centauri, a neighbouring star that is four light years, or 25 trillion miles, away. These nanocraft will explore exoplanets near Alpha Centauri to determine if there is life in the universe beyond our planet.
Milner said that while the project is anticipated to take a few decades, it is hard to predict how long it will take to move from the first proof of concept to building the prototype to building the ultimate machine. But Milner is optimistic about the future of “Breakthrough Starship.”
“For the first time we can say with conviction that it can be done in this time frame,” Milner said.
“Breakthrough Starship” will be publicly sharing data from their hunt for extraterrestrial life. The goal is to get people all over the world involved in the quest to figure out if we are alone in the universe.