Hawking and Zuckerberg are backing a project to reach other stars in 30 years

Facebook will not rest until the galaxy is connected


Happy news: humans won’t be around forever. We’ve learned that asteroids wipe out most of life on Earth every once in a while. We also know that the Sun will consume the Earth in the future and that our galaxy will eventually collide with the Andromeda galaxy. As Stephan Hawking puts it, we probably shouldn’t keep all our eggs in one fragile basket. “If we are to survive as a species we must ultimately spread out to the stars,” he recently told the BBC.

The problem is that space is really big. Pluto is 7.5 billion miles away. Voyager 1 has been hurtling out of the solar system for decades and is now 18 billion miles away. The nearest star system is a whopping 25 trillion miles away. Voyager 1, travelling 40,000 mph, would take 75,000 years to get to the nearest star and it isn’t even heading in the right direction.

Billionaire Yuri Milner doesn’t want to wait that long. His Breakthrough Initiatives, backed by the likes of Mark Zuckenberg, is putting £70 million into a research programme to develop spacecraft that make the journey to the nearest star system in just 30 years. It sounds like fantasy but could be possible as new technologies are emerging.

The leader of the project is ex-NASA research director Dr Pete Warden. “I’d have said that even a few years ago travel to another star at that kind of speed would not be possible,” he told the BBC. “But the group figured out that because of developments in technology there appears to be a concept that appears to work.”

Stephen Hawking and researchers discussing the potential for interstellar missions within a human lifetime. Image © Breakthrough Initiatives

We recently wrote about travel to other stars and the paradox of choosing when to leave. Our prediction at the time was that humans will never reach other stars but we could send nanoprobes on interstellar journeys fast enough to get there within a human lifetime. That’s exactly what the Breakthrough Foundation wants to do.

The solution would be to shrink spacecraft down to just millimetres across and propel them through space using solar sails, a technology we discussed yesterday as tests are now under way for the components involved. The sails would use solar winds from the Sun much like sail boats use the winds across the Earth’s seas. Particles are sent out from the Sun at such high speeds that they could propel tiny spacecraft that could accelerate up to 20% the speed of light. They would need a big push using lasers to get them going.

The plan is to send thousands of these spacecraft to a target because it’s likely some will be destroyed along the way. The technological challenges involve creating the solar sails, which is already looking promising, and shrinking current tech down even smaller so we can make these tiny spacecraft useful. We need them to have cameras, record useful information, and sent it all back to Earth once they get there. To fit all that on a tiny chip will be difficult but might be possible given the rate we’re shrinking tech to fit in our smartphones.

If it takes a decade or two to get the technology ready and just 30 years to make the journey, there’s a possibility that we could reach another star system within the lifetime of humans alive today. That’s a very optimistic outlook but everything about the project looks to be at least technically possible.

If you’re ever in doubt that the technology is amazing, just remember that we’re now researching the development of nano-spacecraft using solar sails to travel to other stars in just decades. The future is awesome.

Main image © Space Services Holdings, Inc