Stephen Hawking’s Starshot: Aliens ‘Probably’ Won’t Be Found For At Least 20 Years

Stephen Hawking and his billionaire friends at Breakthrough gave us a glimpse into the development of a proposed exploration method this week involving nanotech spaceships, but when asked about actually finding alien life, the famed theoretical physicist admitted that he didn’t think it would be anytime soon. He held out hope that the probability exists that the human race will, someday, encounter intelligent aliens, but probably not within the next twenty years. reported on April 15 that, after announcing plans for the Breakthrough Starshot space expedition to Alpha Centauri, noted physicist Stephen Hawking fielded questions about the project and about the search for alien life. The project itself will not be operational for some time (the window is 20 years), but when it is launched, lasers will be used to power “a multitude of tiny, wafer-sized spaceships” toward our nearest stellar neighbor, programmed to observe, record, and transmit information back to Earth during a small one-hour fly-by of the star system. But this fleet of tiny spaceships, when built, will soar through space at 20 percent the speed of light, which means it will take them about 20 years to get to Alpha Centauri, according to Milner. (Note: The window to mission completion from announcement date is roughly 40 years.)

Hawking cautioned that, while the project evolves and reaches mission completion, people should not expect the discovery of intelligent aliens in the interim. At least, not within the next 20 years — while the tiny spaceship and its laser propulsion system are being built.

But there is ample reason, Hawking notes, according to LiveScience, to expect to discover intelligent life sometime in the future, just not in the next two decades. He told reporters that “[t]he probability is low, probably.”

Still, though, the following quote gives some hope.

“The discoveries of the [NASA] Kepler mission suggest that there are billions of habitable planets in our galaxy alone. There are at least a hundred billion galaxies in the visible universe, so it seems likely that there are others out there.”

Some might find it a bit strange that a man that famously warned that finding — or being discovered by — intelligent aliens might not be to humanity’s advantage. He said in a 2015 El Pais interview that aliens might not have evolved to be diplomatic or nice and Earth could find itself in a situation akin to that of Native Americans being “discovered” by Europeans. He maintains that it might be best that we find them before they find us. In fact, he told reporters, “We should hope that they don’t find us.”

But on a lighter note, when asked what aliens might look like, Hawking joked, “Judging by the election campaign, definitely not like us.”

And yet, that may not be entirely accurate, either. Although it would seem a human arrogance to assume that aliens would be anthropomorphic, convergent evolution points to that very likelihood, even on a universe-sized scale. Last year, Cambridge University Professor Simon Conway Morris wrote in his book The Runes Of Evolution, telling the Independent that “evolutionary convergence is completely ubiquitous” and that “other Earth-like planets should very much end up with the same sort of arrangement” as life on Earth with regard to important developmental aspects like “cognitive sophistication, large brains, intelligence, [and] tool making…”

Breakthrough Starshot is budgeted at $100 million and is part of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence begun last year when Stephen Hawking and plans were announced by Breakthrough Initiatives to join the hunt. Their initial project, called Breakthrough Listen, was set up as a 10-year program. The project employs radio telescopes to scan up to 10 times more of the skies (with 50 times the detection sensitivity) than has ever before been searched. Also announced by Stephen Hawking and Russian venture capitalist and physicist Yuri Milner, Breakthrough Listen is the largest hunt for extraterrestrial life of its kind ever.

[Image via Wikimedia Commons]