Stephen Hawking wants to launch a swarm of nano-probes into outer space… with lasers

The distance is 25 trillion miles. The destination is a star system called Alpha Centauri. The mission? To launch a swarm of probes the size of postage stamps into outer space at 20 percent the speed of light to measure and photograph one of our nearest galactic neighbors.

Celebrity physicist Stephen Hawking, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner are some of the masterminds behind this plan –dubbed Breakthrough Starshot— which was announced on Tuesday at One World Observatory in New York City. Though very much in its infancy, the ambitious project shows promise but no shortage of complexity.

Breakthrough starshot illustration
Breakthrough Starshot
Breakthrough Starshot

If all goes as planned, engineers will launch a small mothership into Earth’s orbit. Aboard the mothership will be hundreds of tiny “nanocrafts.” Each day the mothership will release one of these probes, which will fire photon thrusters to align itself with ground-based laser beams here on Earth. When the laser beams strike the nanocraft’s solar sails, the tiny probe will accelerate to its target speed –20 percent the speed of light— within minutes. At this speed, it would take just 20 years to reach Alpha Centauri. By launching so many probes at intervals, the Breakthrough Starshot team hope to ensure against obstacles like interstellar dust collisions. Once a nanocraft reaches Alpha Centauri, it will capture images, take scientific measurements, and relay data back to Earth through the same laser beams it traveled by.

Milner’s initial $100 million investment will fund a research and engineering program to hopefully prove the feasibility of the idea. After that, the project is expected to require at least 20 years of development and upwards of $10 billion in funding. However, Milner projects that each individual probe may only cost as much as today’s iPhone – researchers have bet on continued advances in nanotechnology and the consistency of Moore’s law to support the program’s finer details.

Most of mankind’s spacecrafts have thus far been bound within our own solar system by the limits of technology and sheer distances in outer space. It would take 30,000 years for today’s fastest spacecraft to reach Alpha Centauri. Through Breakthrough Starshot, these visionaries hope to make the trip and beam back valuable data in less than a lifetime.

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