Space Exploration

Breakthrough Starshot Wants to Send a Spacecraft to the Next Star System

The research project Breakthrough Starshot, which was conceived in April 2016 by a team of scientists that once included Stephen Hawking, hopes to shoot a swarm of tiny spacecraft 4.37 light years away to the next star system. It's already launched a handful of test craft, and the future of the project looks exciting.

How Will They Pull It Off?

You know what they say — shoot for the stars! Yuri Milner, a Russian philanthropist and internet entrepreneur, took that advice just about as literally as possible. Milner introduced the project Breakthrough Starshot to shoot a tiny spacecraft 4.37 light years away to the next star system, Alpha Centauri, with a laser.

How can a laser do that? With a form of photonic propulsion: the laser would pelt sails with light particles to transfer their kinetic energy and help them accelerate through space. For this project, there would be a sort of "mother ship" that holds hundreds or thousands of tiny little probes. Here's what happens next, as reported by the New York Times: "Once in orbit, the probes would unfold thin sails and then, propelled by powerful laser beams from Earth, set off one by one like a flock of migrating butterflies across the universe. Within two minutes, the probes would be more than 600,000 miles from home — as far as the lasers could maintain a tight beam — and moving at a fifth of the speed of light. But it would still take 20 years for them to get to Alpha Centauri. Those that survived would zip past the star system, making measurements and beaming pictures back to Earth."

On June 23, 2017, Breakthrough Starshot achieved a world first: it launched six of these nanosatellites into low-Earth orbit, making them the smallest satellites ever to be launched and operated in space. And by smallest, we mean smallest: each satellite, called a Sprite, weighs a slight 4 grams and is the size of a postage stamp, but is large enough to carry solar panels, computers, sensors, and communications equipment into orbit.

Why Bother?

Stephen Hawking was never shy about voicing his opinions on getting the heck off Earth. To ensure the survival of the human race (saving us from a slew of bad things that could happen in the next thousand years), finding a new habitable planet, he said, is crucial. Breakthrough Starshot could be the first big step in finding a new home (or new neighbors!). So what happens if Breakthrough Starshot succeeds and we find alien life? Welp, as Hawking told Popular Science, "We should hope that they don't find us."

Breakthrough Starshot, Explained

Will Starshot's Insterstellar Journey Succeed?

Written by Curiosity Staff December 28, 2017

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