Hawking and Milner Set A Course for Alpha Centauri

If you’ve ever played Sid Meier’s “Civilization,” you know the value of reaching Alpha Centauri. Located a mere 4.37 light years (25 trillion miles) away, it’s is the closest star system to our own and the obsession of astrophysicists and sci-fi dreamers alike. If we’re to become an interstellar species, we have to reach it, even if it’s infested with CGI cat people.

Now we might be a step closer.

In a news conference held Tuesday, astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and billionaire investor Yuri Milner expressed their desire to win our real-life game of “Civilization” within a generation via an armada of super-fast nanocraft.

The $100 million Breakthrough Starshot project, backed by Milner and the Breakthrough Prize foundation, will take years to develop—and then another couple of decades to laser-propel the chip-sized solar-sail craft across interstellar space at 20 percent the speed of light. If they make it that far, we’re just a 4-year transmission away from seeing images from another star system. Dare we hope for a habitable exoplanet, hopefully one free of bear-worshiping Peladonians?

Of course, as the name of a previous Alpha Centauri project implies, getting there is something of a “longshot.” On the engineering front, we have to finish developing LightSail technology, chip-sized camera components, propulsion lasers and laser communication—and then at least one of the thousand-or-so nanocrafts has to survive high-speed dust particle collisions and other pitfalls to reach its destination.

Still the project sets an admirable goal, and fortunately, it seems to have the right mix of brains and money. In addition to Hawking and Milner, the project also entails the leadership of former NASA Ames Research Center head Pete Worden and the crushing mass of Mark Zuckerberg’s bank account. Breakthrough Starshot comes on the heels of Breakthrough Listen, another $100 million project that monitors radio signals for signs of intelligent life.

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