Billionaire, famed cosmologist unveil plan to reach Alpha Centauri
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Jewish investor Yuri Milner and British cosmologist Stephen Hawking spearhead 'Breakthrough Starshot'

Billionaire, famed cosmologist unveil plan to reach Alpha Centauri

Light-propelled ‘nanocraft’ riding laser sails at one-fifth the speed of light may be humanity’s first interstellar messengers

Russian Jewish billionaire investor Yuri Milner and famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking host a press conference to announce Breakthrough Starshot, a new space exploration initiative, at One World Observatory on April 12, 2016 in New York City. (Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Breakthrough Prize Foundation/AFP)
Russian Jewish billionaire investor Yuri Milner and famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking host a press conference to announce Breakthrough Starshot, a new space exploration initiative, at One World Observatory on April 12, 2016 in New York City. (Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Breakthrough Prize Foundation/AFP)

NEW YORK — Billionaire Russian Jewish investor Yuri Milner and British cosmologist Stephen Hawking on Tuesday announced an ambitious new space initiative for a mission to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to Earth.

Milner and Hawking are spearheading the “Breakthrough Starshot” team of scientists working on the bold research program to create a fleet of super-compact, ultra-light space vehicles or “nanocraft.”

The goal is to send the light-propelled mini-space vehicles — each no bigger than a cell phone — to Alpha Centauri, which is 4.37 light years away, or 25 trillion miles, from Earth.

They estimate it could take about 20 years to reach the star system from the time of the launch — rather than the 30,000 years it would take with today’s fastest spacecraft.

The two bright stars are (left) Alpha Centauri and (right) Beta Centauri. The faint red star in the center of the red circle is Proxima Centauri. Taken with Canon 85mm f/1.8 lens with 11 frames stacked, each frame exposed 30 seconds. (Skatebiker at English Wikipedia)
The two bright stars are (left) Alpha Centauri and (right) Beta Centauri. The faint red star in the center of the red circle is Proxima Centauri. Taken with Canon 85mm f/1.8 lens with 11 frames stacked, each frame exposed 30 seconds. (Skatebiker at English Wikipedia)

“Space travel as we know it is slow. How do we go faster and how do we go further? How do we make this great leap?” Milner, who is planning to initially commit $100 million to the project, told a press conference in Manhattan.

Milner — one of the original investors in Facebook — said the team hoped to send a super light robotic spacecraft streaking through space at 60,000 kilometers (faster than 37,000 miles) per second — about 20 percent the speed of light.

The initiative will work by creating a giant laser array to propel the mini-probes — which would deploy micro-sails — toward a given star, creating what Milner likened to an “interstellar sailboat.”

“The Breakthrough StarChip concept is based on technology either already available or likely to be available in the near future. But as with any moonshot, there are major engineering problems to solve,” Milner cautioned.

Hawking noted: “I believe what makes us unique is transcending our limits.”

The Russian Jewish philanthropist said that he will fund the project with $100 million from his own pocket for the project, which could cost as much as $10 billion before it is fully realized.

Milner, Hawking and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg will sit on the project’s board.

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