As the main consultant of Breakthrough Starshot, can Prof. Hawking and his team send a robotic spacecraft to Alpha Centauri within a generation?
By: Ringo Bones
The world’s most famous scientist Prof. Stephen Hawking has just teamed up with Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to launch the most ambitious extraterrestrial life hunting mission in history. The 100-million US dollar project called Breakthrough Starshot will rely on tiny so-called “nanocraft” flying on sails pushed by beams of light through the universe. The mission was announced during the observance of the 55th Anniversary of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s first flight into space. Given the recent advances in consumer electronics that made smartphones almost affordable to everyone, it is probably inevitable that a well-off individual with means can now fund an interstellar mission comparable to that of most popular science fiction serials like Star Trek. After all, a number of students with working-class parents have already sent 90-dollar smartphones on a helium balloon trip 90,000 to 120,000 feet above the earth during the past few years.
Breakthrough Starshot is a very important engineering proof of concept first step that could eventually send a swarm of nanocraft on their way to Alpha Centauri. “With light beams, light sails and the lightest spacecraft ever built we can launch a mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation”, says Hawking. The 100-million US dollar research and engineering program will seek proof of concept for using a light beam to propel super lightweight nanocraft to 20-percent the speed of light. Using current rocket propulsion technology, it will take 30,000 years for a spacecraft to reach Alpha Centauri. Using Breakthrough Starshot’s LightSail design, the travel time will be slashed to 20 years as it can move at up to 20-percent the speed of light as the sail is propelled with the help of earth-based laser array and the sun’s photonic pressure acting on the sail. By the way, the Alpha Centauri star-system is 4.37 light-years or 25-trillion miles away from earth.
LightSail is not the first spacecraft to test this innovative form of propulsion. Japan’s Ikaros probe successfully “sailed” its way to the planet Venus using such solar-sail type propulsion system back in 2010. Ikaros measured 2,000 square feet – 185 square meters – in size.