Space Exploration

Starshot Wants To Send A Spacecraft To The Next Star System

The research project Starshot, which was conceived in April 2016 by a team of scientists that includes Stephen Hawking, hopes to shoot a tiny spacecraft 4.37 light years away to the next star system.

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 Starshot to shoot a tiny spacecraft 4.37 light years away to the next star system, Alpha Centauri, with a laser. (Interstellar, anyone?) How can a laser do that? Laser propulsion, which is a form of photonic propulsion.

For this project, there would be a sort of "mother ship" which holds hundred 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."

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Why Bother?

Stephen Hawking has not been 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 says, is crucial. Project Starshot could be the first big step in finding a new home (or new neighbors!). So what happens if Starshot succeeds and we find alien life? Welp, as Hawking told Popular Science, "We should hope that they don't find us."

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Editor's Picks: The Best Videos To Help You Understand Starshot

Project Starshot, Explained

Watching an animation of the mothership reveal those tiny little probes is so satisfying.

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Will Starshot's Insterstellar Journey Succeed?

There's a LOT of money invested in this project.

Photonic Propulsion: Mars in 3 Days?

Project Starshot depends on photonic propulsion.

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Written by Curiosity Staff December 28, 2016