Breakthrough Starshot initiative aims to build interstellar probes

A rendering of a Breakthrough Starshot nanocraft. Image courtesy of Breakthrough Initiatives.
A rendering of a Breakthrough Starshot nanocraft. Image courtesy of Breakthrough Initiatives.

A new initiative announced yesterday has created a plan to send a swarm of tiny probes to Alpha Centauri, Earth’s nearest star.

The initiative backed by Stephen Hawking, Mark Zuckerberg and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner will attempt to create some of the fastest and smallest spacecraft ever built.

“Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever,” said Stephen Hawking, “Sooner or later, we must look to the stars. Breakthrough Starshot is a very exciting first step on that journey.”

With $100m in seed funding, the Breakthrough Starshot initiative wants to create a proof of concept for tiny satellites capable of travelling at 20% of the speed of light.

These so-called nanocrafts will reportedly be less than a gram, and use a lightsail combined with an Earth-based laser array for propulsion.

The project envisages not one, but hundreds of these small craft being deployed in order to achieve multiple redundancies should many fail over the long interstellar journey.

Travelling at this speed, they would be able to conduct a flyby of Alpha Centauri in around 20 years after they were launched.

During this high speed flyby the nanocraft will attempt to photograph not just the star but also any exoplanets they may find within its solar system. The researchers behind the Breakthrough Starshot initiative are particularly excited about the possibility of discovering an earth-like planet with the habitable zone of this system.

Breakthrough Initiatives, the program behind Starshot hopes to use cutting edge, technology to expand our view of the universe.

“The human story is one of great leaps,” said Yuri Milner, founder of the Breakthrough Initiatives. “55 years ago today, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. Today, we are preparing for the next great leap – to the stars.”

Technology not ready yet

While the Breakthrough Starshot initiative was announced yesterday, the technology to actually make it a reality is still several years away.

Specifically, the team involved with the project says that key advances need to be made in the miniaturization of computer chips and cameras before their nanocraft can be built.

As well the kilometer-scale laser ‘light beamer’ which powers the craft would require significant progress in optical and energy storage technology to become a reality.