“Breakthrough Starshot,” announced Tuesday by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner in conjunction with Stephen Hawking, is a $100 million program to lay the groundwork for interstellar travel. The first step is building light-propelled “nanocraft” that can travel up to 20% of the speed of light, reaching Pluto at that speed in three days an the nearest neighboring star system, Alpha Centauri, in 20 years.
Maddie Stone, Gizmodo:
The technology behind the billionaire’s ambitious proposal—of which prototypes were revealed today—includes a “Starchip,” a gram scale wafer carrying cameras, photon thrusters, power supply, navigation, and communication equipment. Propelling that miniature science laboratory is a “Lightsail,” a meter-sized sail that’s only a few hundred atoms thick and weighs a couple of grams. The light sail will be launched away from the Earth by a phased array of lasers, which Milner envisions carrying a combined power of over 100 Gigawatts, similar to the power needed to lift the Space Shuttle off Earth.
By directing that much energy at an object weighing just a few grams, we can theoretically accelerate said object up to 100,000,000 miles per hour—a thousand times faster than the fastest spacecraft today. The idea is to launch a small fleet of craft toward Alpha Centauri, allowing us to perform many, many New Horizon-like flybys of our nearest neighbor’s potentially habitable real-estate.