Stephen Hawking's Search For Aliens: More Bang For The Buck?

Stephen Hawking, that droll genius of deep thoughts in deeper space, is teaming up with some heavy hitters in an astronomically-funded effort to find E.T.

Hawking, the world's most famous physicist, has teamed up with Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and American billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, in a highly publicized announcement on Tuesday.

The project, called Breakthrough Starshot, is a $100 million program that plans to get tiny probes to Alpha Centauri within the next 20 or so years.

Endgadget explains.

"The current proposal would revolve around thousands of tiny 'nanocrafts' that would use lightsails as propulsion. If you hit those sails with an sufficiently high-powered laser (Breakthrough is talking up to 100 gigawatts), the probes could travel up to 20 percent of the speed of light. That breakneck pace would prevent them from staying in the Alpha Centauri system for long, but that would be enough to collect data about the star's alien worlds and send it back. Humanity would hopefully get that information 4 years later by using the same laser equipment that launched the probes in the first place."
Hawking told Newsweek it was time to go looking for aliens who might be out there.
"It's time to search for life beyond Earth. The Breakthrough initiatives are making that commitment. We are alive. We are intelligent. We must know."
Milner has pledged $100 million towards Breakthrough Initiatives, making it the biggest search for alien life ever staged. Zuckerberg serves on the board.Hawking dropped a few zingers at the press conference, according to Gizmodo.
"What makes human beings unique? Some say it's language or tools. Others say it's logical reasoning. They obviously haven't met many humans."
Gizmodo cautions that the technology to send the little space butterflies on their mission isn't quite up to snuff yet. Hawking is going on the assumption that the power of chips has been doubling every two years.
"Theoretically, we could eventually fit super powerful computers (along with batteries, sensors, and whatever else) into increasingly smaller packages. The law has held up remarkably well since the 1970's, but Intel—the biggest adopter of Moore's chip guidance—has shown signs of chip miniaturization slowing, stretching out Moore's original two-year prediction to 2.5 years."
The equipment needs to weigh less than a few grams. Super-tiny satellites already exist, but are not as sophisticated, data-wise, as Starshot aspires to be.

Starshot plans to use lightsails for power, which Gizmodo said made sense since they are powered by light. Plus, the Planetary Society has already launched one in 2015 and are working on their second. NASA, too, may be experimenting with this form of "solar sailing."

However, the experimental lightsails that were launched last year were about the thickness of a trash bag; still too heavy for what Starshot needs.

The other problem is the need for a powerful laser. The laser, according to Gizmodo, needs to be 100 gigahertz to reach the required speeds.

"...Any laser capable of doing that could also pulverize earth-bound asteroids (if need be), so we're talking some insanely powerful lasers. Most likely, this would be the biggest barrier to Starshot's lofty goal, mainly because an array of this size has never been built."
It's understandable why Zuckerberg is on board. With all the improvements still to be made, it sounds like the project will need a bigger bank account.None of this seems to bother Hawking, who still has aliens on the brain. When asked what we should do if we find aliens, he quipped, "We should hope that they don't find us."

When asked what he thought they would look like, he said, "Judging by the election campaign, definitely not like us."

The project may turn out to be the crowning achievement of Hawking's many endeavors. But as he told World News Tonight, "I won't feel like a true pop culture icon until I've been on the Kardashians."

[Photo by Bebeto Matthews/AP]