Steven Hawking has partnered with Yuri Milner to send “nano craft” to our closest neighboring solar system. The tiny spacecraft will weigh just fractions of an ounce and will be capable of traveling at 20-25 percent of the speed of light. An array of lasers would propel the tiny vehicle up to 47,000 miles per second. At that speed, the craft could reach the closest star, Alpha Centauri, in about 20 years. Alpha Centauri is 4.4 light years (26 trillion miles) from Earth. The endeavor is ambitious, as this distance is 3,000 times farther than any man-made craft has flown.
According to The Seattle Times, Milner has devoted $100 million to the project. However, he explains that this investment is only going into the cost of determining the feasibility of the project. Much more will be needed to launch the craft. Mark Zuckerberg is already involved with the project and can be expected to invest a substantial amount to its development.
Stephen Hawking announced the project, dubbed “Breakthrough Starshot,” Tuesday on his Facebook page.
He stated that the spacecraft would send back pictures of Alpha Centauri and any planets in its solar system. Transmissions from the craft add another 4.5 years to the time it will take before we start receiving data from the star system, bringing the total time for the fruition of the project to 25-28 years. While this time frame is reasonable, travel and data transmission times are a minor hindrance when compared to other feasibility factors.
Stephen Hawking envisions the craft as “riding on a light beam.”
The Seattle Times reports, “Propelled by energy from a powerful array of Earth-based lasers, the spacecraft would fly at about one-fifth the speed of light.”
If this is the case, several problems become evident. Since the laser array would be earth-based, it would be rotating with the planet. So the lasers would only be able to “push” the craft every 24 hours. Furthermore, as the tiny vessel gets further away, the amount of time that the array has a direct shot on the target shrinks.
Stephen Hawking and the team of scientists have not begun to consider such obstacles, but it is clear that they will.
One possible solution for this particular hurdle would be to engineer a targeting system for the laser array. If the lasers were capable of targeting the craft, it would increase the push time to nearly 12 hours per day. However, there is the question of how to build a targeting system that is capable of spotting an object about the size of a postage stamp when it is trillions of miles away. Imagine trying to stab an atom with a needle. The precision it would take is almost unfathomable.
However, Stephen Hawking is one person out of many that will consider such questions. If there are answers as to how to overcome this and many other obstacles, they will find them. After all, the purpose of forming a team in any field is to tackle problems that would be insurmountable for a single person. Working together, they may find a way to make the project possible.
Even if it turns out that the endeavor is not viable, there is a likelihood that new technologies or ideas for new technologies will emerge from the brainstorming phase of the initiative. On one hand, investors could profit from returns on patents and prototypes yielded by the project. On the other hand, such monies could be reinvested to sustain the project until the task becomes feasible.
With a proper team of engineers and scientists and enough time, Stephen Hawking, Yuri Milner, and Mark Zuckerberg could establish a Facebook outpost in the Alpha Centauri system.
[Photo by Bebeto Matthews/AP Images]