Hawking, Russian billionaire shoot for the stars

Mr Milner holding up a prototype of the "Star Chip", a small robotic spacecraft, at the announcement of the "Breakthrough Starshot" initiative at One World Observatory in New York City on Tuesday. With him are Prof Hawking (seated) and English-born A
Mr Milner holding up a prototype of the "Star Chip", a small robotic spacecraft, at the announcement of the "Breakthrough Starshot" initiative at One World Observatory in New York City on Tuesday. With him are Prof Hawking (seated) and English-born American theoretical physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson, who is known for his work in quantum electrodynamics, solid-state physics, astronomy and nuclear engineering.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

They plan to send cellphone-size spacecraft to nearest star system

NEW YORK • Billionaire Russian investor Yuri Milner and British cosmologist Stephen Hawking on Tuesday announced an ambitious new space initiative for a mission to Alpha Centauri, the star system nearest to Earth.

Mr Milner, 54, and Professor Hawking, 74, are spearheading the "Breakthrough Starshot" team of scientists working on the bold research programme to create a fleet of super-compact, ultra-light space vehicles or "nanocraft". The goal is to send the light-propelled mini space vehicles - each no bigger than a cellphone - to Alpha Centauri, which is 4.37 light years, or 40 trillion km, from Earth.

They estimate it could take 20 years to reach the star system from the time of the launch - rather than the 30,000 years it would take with today's fastest spacecraft.

"Space travel as we know it is slow," said Mr Milner at a press conference in Manhattan. "How do we go faster and how do we go further? How do we make this great leap?"

Mr Milner is planning to initially commit US$100 million (S$135 million) to the project. "For the first time in history, we can do more than just gaze at the stars. We can actually reach them," said the 54-year-old philanthropist, whose fortune is estimated at US$2.9 billion by Forbes. "It is time to launch the next great leap in human history," he said.

Mr Milner - one of the original investors in Facebook - said the team hoped to send a super-light robotic spacecraft streaking through space at 60,000km per second - about 20 per cent the speed of light.

The initiative will work by creating a giant laser array to propel the mini-probes - which would deploy micro-sails - towards a given star, creating what Mr Milner likened to an "interstellar sailboat".

"The concept is based on technology either already available or likely to be available in the near future. But as with any moonshot, there are major engineering problems to solve," he cautioned.

Prof Hawking noted: "I believe what makes us unique is transcending our limits."

Mr Milner said the project could cost as much as US$10 billion before it is fully realised. "It's very clear that it's a non-profit initiative," he joked, acknowledging that the chance for success and the final cost were unclear.

Mr Milner, Prof Hawking and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg will sit on the project's board.

A team has already been working on the endeavour for a year, Mr Milner said. Initial research results indicate that the giant laser array - the "light beamer" - would require about 100 gigawatts, roughly the energy needed to launch a space shuttle, said Harvard Professor Avi Loeb, who is a project member.

Last July, Prof Hawking launched a search for intelligent extraterrestrial life in a US$100 million, 10-year project funded by Mr Milner, who said the "Breakthrough Listen" initiative would be the most intensive scientific search ever undertaken for signs of alien civilisation.

One aim of the mission to Alpha Centauri is also to look for signs of extraterrestrial life, Prof Loeb said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 14, 2016, with the headline 'Hawking, Russian billionaire shoot for the stars'. Print Edition | Subscribe