Tiny spaceships could explore next solar system

Physicist Stephen Hawking, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Russian internet billionaire Yuri Milner have announced a project that could send microscopic spaceships to hunt for extraterrestrial life in the far reaches of space.

The $100m project, known as Breakthrough Starshot, will look at sending a host of tiny spacecraft far beyond our solar system to our nearest neighbour, the Alpha Centauri system.

The project aims to find out whether the nanocraft, each weighing less than 20g, could fly at a fifth of the speed of light and capture images of possible planets and other scientific data.

Current spacecraft would take around 30,000 years to get to Alpha Centauri, which is 40trn km away.

But the nanocraft, powered by a sail pushed by a light beam, could potentially travel the distance over 1,000 times faster and make the journey in 20 years.

Prof Hawking said: “What makes human beings unique? There are many theories. Some say it’s language or tools, others say it’s logical reasoning. They obviously haven’t met many humans. I believe what makes us unique is transcending our limits.

“The limit that confronts us now is the great void between us and the stars, but now we can transcend it.”

Astronomers estimate there is a reasonable chance of an Earth-like planet existing in the “habitable zones” of Alpha Centauri’s three-star system.


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