Interstellar travel has so far remained well outside of humanity’s grasp. The problem? All of our current technology is simply too slow. Now, Stephen Hawking and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner have announced a plan that could delivery tiny microspace craft to Alpha Centauri, a star system some 4.37 light years away, in just 20 years.
Twenty years might seem like a long time, but remember it took the Voyager 1 spacecraft over 30 years just to reach the edge of our solar system. For a conventional spacecraft to reach the Alpha Centauri system, it would take some 30,000 years.
The proposed spacecraft wouldn’t be propelled through space via rockets, but instead laser beams caught in solar sails. First, a “mother ship” would take the tiny spacecraft into space. From there hundreds, if not thousands, of tiny space craft would be propelled by earth-based lasers.
Within only two minutes, the craft would be propelled 600,000 miles from Earth. At this point, the lasers would lose the sufficiency intensity needed to propel the tiny devices, but they would already be traveling at approximately 20 percent of the speed of light.
From there, the craft would beam images and other data back to earth. Since such data could travel at the speed of light, it’d take less than five years for the data to be returned.
Before you get too excited, Milner has estimated that it would take at least 20 years to get the project ready for launch. Then, it’d take another 20 years for the aircraft to reach Alpha Centauri and another 4 point something years for the data to be returned. In other words, 50 or so years would be a very optimistic time line for the project, assuming it can even attract enough funding.
For now, $100 million dollars has been raised to get the project started, but it will take many billions more to actually launch it.