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“I believe what makes us unique is transcending our limits. Gravity pins us to the ground but I just flew to America. I lost my voice but I can still speak thanks to my voice synthesiser, how do we transcend these limits? With our minds and our machines.” For someone who can’t talk, Stephen Hawking is a great speaker.
This quote comes from an exciting announcement made last week concerning interstellar travel. Stephen Hawking, Yuri Milner (named for first man in space Yuri Gagarin), and Mark Zuckerburg (who seems like a good dude even if he ripped off those rower guys in that movie), have announced a plan to send a number of tiny spacecraft to our closest neighbour in the cosmic neighbourhood, Alpha Centauri.
The spacecraft would be only a little thicker than a postage stamp and would contain cameras, thrusters, a power supply, and communication equipment. They would only weigh a few grams and could be mass produced for about the same cost as an iPhone. The idea is to send off as many as possible, hundreds or even thousands of them, and even if only a few make it to Alpha Centauri then the mission would be a success.
The coolest thing about them is how they gain their initial propulsion. Nanotechnology has allowed for ultra-light, sails that can be propelled by laser beams from Earth. With the continuing advance of laser technologies, it is expected that a sufficient array of lasers could accelerate the crafts to about a fifth the speed of light (that is 1000 times faster than any current spaceship).
The machines could then travel to Alpha Centauri in about 20 years and send back photographs and data of whatever it might find. Alpha Centauri is actually a system of three stars and we are not sure whether or not there are any planets. I bet the photos would be pretty sweet.
The plan is long term. It’s estimated that the project will take a couple of decades and will cost around $10 billion. I might be an old man by the time we get to see this all culminate, but it is exciting that humanity now has a plan involving interstellar spaceships.