Launching Tiny Starships: The Breakthrough Initiative Targets a Mission to Alpha Centauri

Next Stop: The Centauri System Credit: ESO

Next Stop: The Centauri System
Credit: ESO

In February, Innerspace featured a story about a NASA derived concept to send tiny, wafer-sized sized spacecraft to interstellar destinations by using an array of lasers to accelerate them to 30% of the speed of light. It did not take long for the hypothetical story based on a research paper to achieve a potentially very real form.

See Related: NASA Concept: 30% Light Speed in 10 Minutes With Photonic Propulsion 

Today, at a press conference in Manhattan, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, flanked by physicist Stephen Hawking, introduced “Breakthrough Starshot” a $100 million program charged with launching a swarm of such tiny “starships” towards another solar system using an array of ground based lasers focused on a solar sail.

The target is the Centauri system, commonly referred to as Alpha Centauri. It is considered to be a trinary system featuring two stars like our own sun,  Alpha Centauri A  and Alpha Centauri B, which orbit each other, as well as the much smaller Alpha Centauri C, or Proxima Centauri. The latter is a red dwarf which is believed to be gravitationally bound to the other two. Proxima is 4.24 light years away, while Alpha Centauri A &B are 4.37 light years from Earth.

According to Milner, crossing that immense void in the scale of a human lifespan is now possible due to the three factors; advances in laser technology, advances in nanotechnology, and the steady progression of increasing capability and decreasing size of computer circuitry as described by Moore’s Law.

It will not be easy however, and today’s announcement of $100 million in seed money is only the start to what he suggested could be a $5 – 10 billion dollar project which may take 20 years to come together, requiring a number of breakthroughs along the way. After that, another two decades of travel time, as well as an additional five years for whatever data the surviving members of the fleet of tiny spacecraft could gather, and the human exploration of the stars would be underway.

Overseeing the effort is former NASA Ames Director Pete Worden in his role as chairman of Breakthrough Initiatives, which also includes the $100 million Breakthrough Listen, an effort to scan the heavens for extra-terrestrial life, as well as Breakthrough Message, a $1 million prize which goes to the best message to be sent to whomever Breakthrough Listen discovers. Advisors include Ann Druyan, Freeman Dyson, Mae Jemison, and Avi Loeb.

The Board of Directors consists of Yuri Miler, Stephen Hawking and Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.



Posted in: Advanced propulsion

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1 Comment on "Launching Tiny Starships: The Breakthrough Initiative Targets a Mission to Alpha Centauri"

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  1. Keith Pickering says:

    One really has to wonder about the energy supply needed for a 20 year mission, even with nanotech, and how it would be maintained over that timescale.

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