Stephen Hawking and Russian billionaire want to build interstellar starship to search for aliens

Famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner on Tuesday announced their collaborative venture “Breakthrough Starshot” at the One World Observatory in New York City, which is an attempt to make an interstellar starship.

The $100-million (AUD$130 million) research and engineering programme is expected to search for extraterrestrial intelligence by scanning the skies for radio and light signals from aliens. This program aims to suss out the scientific and engineering architecture needed to make an interstellar probe a reality.

These nano-craft would have to travel roughly a thousand times faster than current spacecraft – and would also be much smaller, consisting of a light sail and a chip that could fit in your cellphone.

“Collectively we as humans are at a point in which, technologically, there’s at least one feasible path to getting to another star within our generation,” former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison said at a news briefing Tuesday at the One World Observatory in New York City. Jemison now leads the 100 Year Starship project, which fosters research into the necessary technology for interstellar travel.

The tiny spacecraft attached to lightsails uses the power from gigawatt-scale laser arrays to reach speeds upwards of 20% the speed of light.

“Can we literally reach the stars?” Milner asked. “And can we do it in our lifetimes?”

Alpha Centauri sits about 4.37 light-years from Earth, or around 25 trillion miles away. This means that we are seeing the three-star system as it looked during the last election cycle, Milner pointed out.

“The Breakthrough concept is based on technology either already available or likely to be available in the near future,” Milner explains.

In support of this, prototypes of the new technology were demonstrated at the announcement. Another key component called “starchip” — a computer chip about the size of a postage stamp that carries cameras, photon thrusters, power supply, navigation and communication equipment. It’s tethered to a “Lightsail,” a meter-sized sheet just a few atoms thick and weighing a few grams at most; this is the nanocraft’s propulsion system.

The light sail will be launched away from the Earth by a phased array of lasers, which Milner envisions carrying a combined power of over 100 Gigawatts, similar to the power needed to lift the Space Shuttle off Earth. This will push the nanocraft along at speeds up to 161 million kilometers (100 million miles) an hour. A “swarm” of nanocraft can be dispatched to nearby stars, increasing the likelihood that at least one of them will survive the trip.

“For the first time in human history we can do more than just gaze at the stars,” Yuri Milner observed. “We can actually reach them.”

While Hawking confesses the chance of finding alien life in the nearest solar system is unlikely, the “rapid progress of space exploration” has improved people’s lives in the past would benefit mankind. Gizmodo notes that the idea appears “like the insanely ambitious fantasy of a starstruck billionaire,” but the Russian insists the Breakthrough concept is based on available technology or would likely be available in the near future.

In the meantime, the NASA is already testing the concept for a new propulsion system that could reduce spacecraft flying time to reach interstellar space. According to reports Themarshalltown, it would interact with particles released by the sun and repel protons to create thrust and reach unprecedented speeds.