New mission to search the stars announced

The idea of sending robots over 4 lightyears into space to search for alien life may seem like the plot of a sci-fi movie, but a new project announced by Stephen Hawking is seeking to do just that.

Stephen Hawking's new project will see robotic spacecraft fly to the nearest star system in the search for signs of alien life.
Credit: Bryan Bedder, Getty Images 2016

A new initiative to explore the stars and search for life in the Universe has been announced by philanthropist and physicist Yuri Milner and cosmologist Stephen Hawking.

The $100 million project, named Breakthrough Starshot, will utilise the power of nanocrafts to fly at 20 per cent the speed of light, capturing data and images of planets in Alpha Centauri, our nearest star system.

It would take the current fastest spacecraft on Earth about 30,000 years to get to Alpha Centauri, over 4 lightyears away. Breakthrough Starshot will look at whether nanocrafts powered by light beams could fly over a thousand times faster.

Nanocrafts are gram-scale robotic spacecraft with a so-called ‘StarChip’ that allows for a reduction in the size of microelectronic components including cameras, navigation and communication equipment; and a ‘Lightsail’, which are spacecraft sails no more than a few hundred atoms thick.

The research is looking at how to generate and store energy during launch, how to transmit scientific data back to Earth using a laser communications system, and the prospect of launching a mothership that would carry thousands of nanocrafts into Earth’s orbit.

Breakthrough Starshot will search one million of our nearest stars, the plane and centre of the Milky Way, and the nearest 100 galaxies.

Commenting on the announcement, Stephen Hawking said: "Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever. Sooner or later, we must look to the stars. Breakthrough Starshot is a very exciting first step on that journey.”

Front image: Stephen Hawking announces the Breakthrough Starshot project at New York's One World Observatory.
Credit: Bryan Bedder, Getty Images 2016
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