A fleet of laser-boosted nanocraft could be on their way to the Sun's nearest neighboring star, Alpha Centauri in a couple of decades. Breakthrough Starshot is the ambitious proposal announced by Russian internet entrepreneur Yuri Milner in New York today. As outlined by Milner, the idea is that a fleet of gram-sized spacecraft—StarChips—kitted out with diaphanous lightsails will be boosted into orbit and then blasted with a ground-based "light beamer" consisting of phased 100 gigawatt array of lasers. This would get the StarChips traveling at about 20 percent of the speed of light enabling them to reach Alpha Centauri in just over 20 years. According to the Breakthrough announcement of the project:
The Alpha Centauri star system is 25 trillion miles (4.37 light years) away. With today's fastest spacecraft, it would take about 30,000 years to get there. Breakthrough Starshot aims to establish whether a gram-scale nanocraft, on a sail pushed by a light beam, can fly over a thousand times faster. It brings the Silicon Valley approach to space travel, capitalizing on exponential advances in certain areas of technology since the beginning of the 21st century. …
Breakthrough Starshot aims to bring economies of scale to the astronomical scale. The StarChip can be mass-produced at the cost of an iPhone and be sent on missions in large numbers to provide redundancy and coverage. The light beamer is modular and scalable. Once it is assembled and the technology matures, the cost of each launch is expected to fall to a few hundred thousand dollars.
Milner plans to spend $100 million on the research and engineering program to demonstrate proof of concept for the project.
This is not the first time Milner has financed visionary projects. Last year he announced that he is bankrolling the Breakthrough Listen project with the Unverisity of California Berkeley. That project will use radio telescopes to search space for signals from extraterrestrial intelligences. He has committed $100 million over the next ten years to Breakthrough Listen.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Cambridge University physicist Stephen Hawking will join Milner on the board of the Breakthrough Starshot project. The executive director will be Pete Worden, former director of NASA Ames Research Center.
*To those commenters who alerted me to this, many thanks (you know who you are). My apologies for getting to it so late in the day.