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Light sail
An artist’s conception shows how a laser beam could propel a light sail outward toward Alpha Centauri. (Credit: Breakthrough Starshot)

Fueled by an initial $100 million from Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, a team laden with big names laid out a multi-decade plan to send flurries of smartphone-sized probes to the Alpha Centauri system, powered by laser-driven light sails.

“For the first time in human history, we can do more than just gaze at the stars,” Milner said today at a New York news conference where the Breakthrough Starshot project was unveiled. “We can actually reach them. It is time to launch the next great leap in human history.”

Eventually, the plan will require billions of dollars more in funding – and much more planning as well. But the Starshot team boasts some top-drawer supporters: In addition to Milner, the board includes British physicist Stephen Hawking and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

During the news briefing, Hawking noted that life on Earth faces risks ranging from asteroid strikes to human-caused catastrophes. “If we are to survive as a species, we must ultimately spread to the stars,” he said.

The project’s executive director is Pete Worden, who previously headed NASA’s Ames Research Center. Today he said he’s already spoken with NASA officials about the plan. “They’re very eager to support us,” he told reporters.

Worden also announced that another project backed by Milner and Hawking, Breakthrough Listen, is releasing the first batch of data from its radio- and optical-based search for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations. Radio data from the Green Bank Telescope will be made available for citizen scientists to analyze using Berkeley’s SETI@home software.

“We’re going to make this all available to the public,” Worden said.

The Starshot project calls for developing a new breed of interstellar “nanoprobe,” consisting of a credit-card-sized, camera-equipped StarChip and an ultra-thin light sail weighing just a fraction of an ounce. Each nanoprobe would be built for less than the cost of a smartphone, the project’s organizers said in a concept description.

Thousands of folded-up probes would be rocketed into space and dispersed to unfurl their sails. Then a 100-gigawatt battery of laser-equipped antennas, known as the Light Beamer, would shoot powerful light beams at the sails. The phased-array lasers would fire a minutes-long blast at each probe, propelling them to 20 percent of the speed of light.

Starshot’s advisers figure that it would take 20 years to develop the fleets of nanoprobes. Once they’re launched, the probes would have to travel for another 20 years to reach Alpha Centauri, which is 4 light-years away.

During the trip, the nanoprobes would use miniaturized lasers to send imagery and other data back to Earth. The Light Beamer antenna array would be converted to receive rather than send signals. It would take four years for those signals to make their way back to Earth from the Alpha Centauri flyby.

The pictures should be good enough to reveal variations on any planets in the Alpha Centauri system, and potentially signs of life, Milner said.

Yuri Milner and StarChip
Russian billionaire Yuri Milner shows off a prototype for a chip-sized probe that could be sent to Alpha Centauri. (Credit: Breakthrough Starshot)

Milner acknowledged that the plan will stretch the world’s technological capabilities. “There are major engineering challenges to solve,” he said. For example, the plan assumes that electronic miniaturization trends will continue over the next 20 years. The plan also assumes the world’s nations will permit the construction of a potentially satellite-killing laser array that Dr. Evil would envy.

Although the mission plan sounds incredible, Breakthrough Starshot is likely to get a boost of credibility from its backers, starting with Milner. The Russian entrepreneur and philanthropist has a net worth estimated at more than $3 billion, due in part to his early investments in Facebook and Twitter. Starshot’s managers and advisers include Martin Rees, Britain’s astronomer royal; theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, who came up with a nuclear-powered plan for interstellar travel in the 1960s; former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison, who heads the 100 Year Starship Project; and Ann Druyan, astronomer Carl Sagan’s widow and the keeper of the “Cosmos” flame.

Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb, who chairs Starshot’s advisory committee, voiced confidence that the project would yield results. “We don’t see any showstoppers, any deal-breakers, based on fundamental physics principles,” he said.

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