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SPACE

Cosmic Company Searches for … Cosmic Company!

April 14th, 2016
A still image taken from a video rendering shows a nanocraft which could be used on Breakthrough Starshot, a $100 million research and engineering program aiming to demonstrate proof of concept for light-propelled spacecrafts. Handout: Breakthrough Initiatives

A concept illustration of a nanocraft which could be used on Breakthrough Starshot, Handout: Breakthrough Initiatives

A huge announcement was made this week about trying to develop and launch a bunch of postage stamp-sized tiny spacecraft over to the next star system, Alpha Centauri, so we can see what’s going on there.

This very ambitious project is called Starshot .

It might sound a little “out there” (pun intended)  … except that it’s being spearheaded by one of our most brilliant scientific minds, Stephen Hawking … Russian billionaire and science entrepreneur, Yuri Milner … and the young founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, one of the richest people on earth who, in his spare time, funds big, expensive projects to help advance humanity. And it’s a good thing because this tiny spacecraft project with big dreams also has a big price tag — about $100 million (for starters)!

That seems especially expensive since it might not even work!

(commercials from the videos below come from the source, not HTE)

But what it if it did? How would it work?

The idea is that these tiny probes would be so light and small, with little sails attached to them, that they could be pushed forward by laser light beams. Fast!

Light travels pretty much as fast as anything can, especially when there’s nothing in its way (at 299,792,458 meters per second/186,000 miles per second). It can’t travel full speed when something’s in its way, but it could, in theory, push these tiny spacecraft about 20% the speed of light. And that’s still way faster than anything else we’ve got.

The space shuttle, for example, traveling at 17,500 miles per hour/28,000 km per hour would take 165,000 years to get there. Voyager, a little faster at 38,000 miles per hour/62,000 km per hour would still take 70,000 years to visit the neighboring Alpha Centauri star system. Nobody wants to wait that long. Nobody can!

The laser beam idea could get the little probes to Alpha Centauri in 20 or so years (so this might happen in your lifetime!). And since it has sensors and little cameras inside of it, it would be able to send data back. That would take another number of years, but we’d learn a lot!

If successful, this project would launch us way farther into the Universe than we’ve ever gone.

It also hopes to answer questions like: Are there other planets like Earth? Can they hold life? Gulp, do they have life? Are we alone in this incredibly vast universe … or do we have company? If we do, should we say hi?

This is an age-old question that humans have wondered about and tried to answer … and Starshot could go a long way toward that — and by a long way we also literally mean 41.2 trillion kilometers!

We’ll see if such distances can be traveled on big dreams and laser beams.

P.S. Humanity’s huge leaps often start with small insights, sometimes by students just like you. The Starshot project website has student submissions as well. You can check out the winner and finalists at Breakthrough Junior Challenge . And maybe even enter yourself …

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