Hawking Backs Project to Launch Probe to Nearby Star

Stephen Hawking wants humanity to reach the stars.

Stephen Hawking wants humanity to reach the stars.

The famed cosmologist, along with a group of scientists and billionaire investor Yuri Milner, unveiled an ambitious new $100 million project today (April 12) called Breakthrough Starshot, which aims to build the prototype for a tiny, light-propelled robotic spacecraft that could visit the nearby star Alpha Centauri after a journey of just 20 years.

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"The limit that confronts us now is the great void between us and the stars, but now we can transcend it," Hawking said today during a news conference here at One World Observatory. [Stephen Hawking: 'Transcending Our Limits' With Breakthrough Starshot (Video)]

"With light beams, light sails and the lightest spacecraft ever built, we can launch a mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation," he added. "Today, we commit to this next great leap into the cosmos. Because we are human, and our nature is to fly."

The Starshot spacecraft will consist of a wafer-size chip attached to a super-thin sail. This paired duo will be launched to space aboard a mothership, and then propelled to the stars by laser light beamed from a high-altitude facility here on Earth.

Such a craft, Milner said, could be accelerated up to 20 percent the speed of light - fast enough to make it to the Alpha Centauri system, which lies 4.37 light-years away, just two decades after launch. (It would take a conventionally propelled probe about 30,000 years to make such a trip.)

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"We call it the Nanocraft," Milner said. "Our interstellar sailboat."

The Nanocraft "could capture images of possible planets and other scientific data and send them back home in a beam of light," Milner added. "If this mission succeeds, it will tell us as much about ourselves as it will about Alpha Centauri.

"Breakthrough Starshot is based on technology either available or likely to be available in the near future," Milner said, adding that all of its work is based on data in the public domain.

Developing and proving out Starshot technology will be time-consuming and expensive; sending Nanocraft to Alpha Centauri will probably end up costing about as much as the largest scientific experiments operating today, team members said.

But subsequent missions should be much cheaper, and economies of scale will allow many Nanocraft to launch on a single flight to provide redundancy and increase photographic coverage of the target star system. (The chip at the heart of each Nanocraft costs about as much as an iPhone to produce, Breakthrough Starshot representatives said.)

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Today's announcement comes on the 55th anniversary of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's historic launch on Vostok 1 in 1961, a mission that ushered in the era of human spaceflight. Milner, who was born in Moscow, has said he was named in honor of Gagarin. Today is also the 35th anniversary of NASA's first space shuttle flight, STS-1, aboard Columbia.

"The human story is one of great leaps," Milner said in a statement. "Fifty-five years ago today, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. Today, we are preparing for the next great leap - to the stars."

Breakthrough Starshot's board consists of Hawking, Milner and Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook.

This is not the first time Hawking and Milner have worked together: Hawking helped unveil Milner's 10-year, $100 million initiative to search for signs of intelligent life called Breakthrough Listen last July. That project, which is billed as the most powerful search ever for extraterrestrial life, will survey 1 million stars in the Milky Way closest to Earth. The 10-year project will also scan the 100 closest galaxies to our own for any traces of intelligent life.

Milner, meanwhile, is also funding the Breakthrough Message project, which will award up to $1 million in prizes to people who craft the best messages to send out to any intelligent life that may be listening.

More from SPACE.com:

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An illustration depicts the Breakthrough Starshot Nanocraft, revealed at a press conference on April 12, 2016.

The idea of traveling to another star has captivated scientists and science fiction writers for decades, but the vast interstellar distances is a huge barrier to our star-trekking dreams. For interstellar travel to become a reality, we realistically need to develop a propulsion technology that can travel faster than the speed of light. Now one NASA physicist has turned some very preliminary space-time warping experiments into a design of starship that would, quite frankly, make Captain Jean-Luc Picard drool. Harold "Sonny" White, Advanced Propulsion Team Lead at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Texas, wowed the world in 2012 when he announced a "warpship" concept that could, hypothetically, be more energy efficient than starship designs that have come before it. Now, White has teamed up with artist Mark Rademaker to turn his warpship concept, that is based on very real physics, into a beautifully-rendered model.

The full, high-resolution images of the IXS Enterprise can be found in Mark Rademaker's Flickr collection.


IXS Enterprise

concept has been out for a while now, I used it in the

Starship Congress talk (in 2013)

," White told Discovery News via email, "The artistic rendering ... is just part of an informal education outreach thread that went into the '

Star Trek Ships of the Line 2014

' calendar." White is currently working with a lab-based interferometer at Johnson that could

potentially detect microscopic warps

. The technology is in the very early stages -- and,

by White's own admission

, may not even lead to the development of anything as sophisticated as a warp drive -- but this warpship design incorporates basic warp drive physics and builds it around a concept for a faster-than-light speed starship.

MORE: Into Reality: Top Star Trek Warp Speed Concepts

The idea of a starship powered by a warp drive isn't new. Not only popularized by science fiction shows like "Star Trek," the physics behind warp drive propulsion was famously investigated in 1994 by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre. Alas, the energy required to make the Alcubierre drive function would be unimaginatively huge -- the approximate rest-mass energy of the

entire Universe

. In 2009, advanced propulsion expert Richard Obousy

applied modern physics to the warp drive problem

. Through the manipulation of extra-dimensions in space-time by utilizing dark energy, the Obousy warp drive would use far less energy -- the approximate rest-mass energy of Jupiter. Still, the energy requirements were prohibitively big, but at least it was an improvement.

MORE: Warp Drives: Making the 'Impossible' Possible

Then, in 2012,

White announced his experiments

into warping space-time and a tweak to the warpship concept. By turning the warpship's ring into a "rounded doughnut" and oscillating the warp field, White's theoretical warpship would be more efficient and run off the equivalent mass-energy as the Voyager 1 spacecraft. Once again, that's still a lot of energy, but it's a huge step in the right direction. Through the development of White's "rounded doughnut" idea, the artistic rendering of

IXS Enterprise

was born.

MORE: How to Make an 'Energy-Efficient' Warp Drive

"Mark Rademaker did the art work with some consultation from Mike Okuda, and I just provided some helpful inputs on how to update the Matthew Jefferies concept to more accurately reflect the recent physics findings based on my analysis work supporting the talks I gave at the 100 Year Starship, Starship Congress, and numerous other engagements," said White.

Mike Okuda

is a graphic designer known for his work on Star Trek movies, TV shows and video games and Walter M. "Matt" Jefferies designed the original Star Trek

Starship Enterprise

. In the 1960's, Jefferies, who died in 2003, also had the amazing foresight to design a starship concept that also incorporated a ring doughnut into the shape.

An artist's rendition of Jefferies' original ringed Enterprise concept can be seen here, also rendered by Mark Rademaker.

"I think it's interesting that Matt apparently conceived of the rings as being part of the propulsion system, not (as I assumed at first glance) as a centrifuge," Okuda told Discovery News. "He told us that it was his favorite of his early concepts for the


." The rings that are included in the

IXS Enterprise

design would support a "warp bubble" that would encapsulate the starship's hull. In theory, the warp bubble would contain a stationary volume of space that can travel arbitrarily fast through space-time (it is, therefore, the space-time bubble, not the spaceship, that travels faster than the speed of light). Of course, there are many technological, engineering and physics challenges that aren't accounted for in this design, but it does provide a glimpse of a starship of the future that applies physics that we are beginning to get to grips with today.

"We designed this mainly to interest people in space travel; the research might or might not lead to a breakthrough in FTL (faster-than-light) propulsion, but always will return valuable data,"

Rademaker told CNET.com

. "I think it's decades and many many evolutions away from a working prototype. To see it fly in this exact form is highly unlikely." We don't know what transformative technological developments lay ahead of us, but if these renderings of a warpship using current ideas from our understanding of physics inspires the next generation of space scientists, interstellar travel may be closer than we think.

The full, high-resolution images of the IXS Enterprise can be found in Mark Rademaker's Flickr collection.