The Alpha Centauri star system lies just more than four light-years from Earth. Researchers want to sent a tiny probe there on a nearly impossible trip. Photo by European Southern Observatory
NEW YORK, April 12 (UPI) -- Russian venture capitalist and physicist Yuri Milner is teaming up with famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking on an ambitious space travel project.
On Tuesday, the two science enthusiasts announced a $100 million effort to plan a trip to the sun's closest stellar neighbor, Alpha Centauri.
The mission, dubbed Breakthrough Starshot, will be headed by Pete Worden, former director of NASA's Ames Research Center. The first order of business is a proof of concept for a light beam-propelled nanocraft that can travel 20 percent the speed of light, or 100 million miles per hour. Such a speed would put the craft within the star system roughly 20 years after leaving Earth.
Project scientists aim to build a tiny spacecraft with a lightsail, which will be powered by a scalable light beam -- the most powerful and precise laser ever conceived.
"I believe what makes us unique is transcending our limits," Hawking told an audience gathered at the top of the top of the World Trade Center. "Gravity pins us to the ground, but I just flew to America."
"How do we transcend these limits?" he asked, as Ars Technica reported. "With our minds and our machines. The limit that confronts us now is the great void between us and the stars. But now we can transcend it."
Hawking and Milner will be joined on the project's board by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
The $100 million promised by Milner is only seed money -- financing available to scientists willing to help with initial research and design components. Ultimately, Milner expects the actual mission to cost $5 billion to $10 billion.
Project engineers expect the nanocraft to weigh no more than one gram, roughly the size of an iPhone without the outer shell. The craft will be outfitted with computers, cameras and electrical power.
It's all rather fantastical, but those involved believe the ambitious project is within the realm of possibility. Still, an array of technological breakthroughs will be necessary to turn the dream into a reality.
"The Breakthrough concept is based on technology either already available or likely to be available in the near future," Milner said, according to Gizmodo. "But as with any moonshot, there are major hurdles to be solved."