Twenty percent light speed. Band name. Called it.
It’s also how fast a fleet of tiny spaceships called “nanocrafts” will travel on their way to Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to Earth. It’s 4.37 light years away, so getting there with regular spacecraft would take more than 78,000 years. But a flock of postage stamp-sized probes that weigh less than a gram could get there in about 20 years.
And that’s what Stephen Hawking, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, and Mark Zuckerberg are hoping will happen. They’re spending $100 million on “Breakthrough Starshot,” a project to explore the far reaches of space and hunt for alien life.
“Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever,” Hawking said in a statement. “Sooner or later, we must look to the stars. Breakthrough Starshot is a very exciting first step on that journey.”
The nanocraft would have cameras on board, as well as navigation and communication equipment that would take four years to transmit anything back to Earth. A propulsion system called “lightsail,” using a “phased array of lasers,” would sail each little probe out in to space. Here’s their animation of how it would work:
The project is being engineered by a former NASA research center director, Pete Worden (with a team of other scientists and engineers.) Each nanocraft would cost about as much as a smartphone to produce, according to Milner. He listed over a dozen challenges the research and development team faces right now in terms of technology that doesn’t actually exist yet. The group believes that with a focused effort, they’ll be able to achieve their goals relatively soon, however.
“If this mission comes to fruition,” Milner said, “it will tell us as much about ourselves as about Alpha Centauri.”
And since there’s stuff to see along the way to Alpha Centauri, the fleet of nanocraft will be able to accomplish several things during their trip. It will only take them three days to reach Pluto, for instance.