A Billionaire's Plan to Send Robots Powered by Lasers to Alpha Centauri - Atlas Obscura
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A Billionaire’s Plan to Send Robots Powered by Lasers to Alpha Centauri

The trip to the star system, which is 4.37 lightyears away, could take just 20 years.

Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking at a press conference to announce the plan on Tuesday. (Photo: Bryan Bedder/Breakthrough Prize Foundation)

Here’s something amazing. While you were busy today patting yourself on the back for taking out the trash, Stephen Hawking and a billionaire were announcing a plan to send robots to a star system 4.37 lightyears away.

How would they do this? Thousands of tiny robots, some very powerful lasers, and a massive scientific collaboration, of course. (Not to mention some rich friends on the board, like Mark Zuckerberg.)

The project was announced on the 55th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin becoming the first man in space, preceding the U.S.’s so-called moonshot. The new project’s name has a similarly lofty title: Breakthrough Starshot.

It is being funded initially by Yuri Milner, a Russian billionaire who invests in tech companies (including Facebook.) Milner said Tuesday that he’s investing $100 million to begin research on the starshot, but says it could cost $10 billion to finish the job, which, by the way, won’t be done anytime soon.

Even if everything goes right, it could be nearly a half-century before we get data back from Alpha Centauri, according to The New York Times

As for the technical details, the project’s announcement outlines a simple eight-step plan:

  • Building a ground-based kilometer-scale light beamer at high altitude in dry conditions.
  • Generating and storing a few gigawatt hours of energy per launch.
  • Launching a ‘mothership’ carrying thousands of nanocrafts to a high-altitude orbit.
  • Taking advantage of adaptive optics technology in real time to compensate for atmospheric effects.
  • Focusing the light beam on the lightsail to accelerate individual nanocrafts to the target speed within minutes.
  • Accounting for interstellar dust collisions en route to the target.
  • Capturing images of a planet, and other scientific data, and transmitting them back to Earth using a compact on-board laser communications system.
  • Using the same light beamer that launched the nanocrafts to receive data from them over 4 years later.

So, nothing to it.

Or, as Stephen Hawking said, according to the Times:

“Earth is a beautiful place, but it might not last forever. Sooner or later we must look to the stars.”