2016 may well be remembered as a breakthrough year for stargazers.  On April 12, Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner unveiled Breakthrough Starshota mission to send a swarm of robotic space probes to Alpha Centauri, our closest neighbour.

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The probes would be launched within 20 years, and take another 20 to reach their destination, 25 trillion miles away.  The further discovery this year of earth-sized exoplanets orbiting Alpha Centauri gave the mission added purpose and passion.

breakthrough starshot Alpha Centauri

“Today is the day that space explorers have dreamed about…The stars are finally within our reach”

Pete Worden, Starshot Executive Director, former head of NASA Ames research centre

breakthrough starshot
via Sun Graphics

The spacecraft in mind for this journey would be tiny, paper-thin devices loaded with microelectronics and weighing no more than a gram.  These micro-ships would use ultra thin solar sails to get to their destination, after being launched conventionally by rockets carrying dozens or hundreds into orbit.  An array of ground-based lasers would then focus their beams at each sail, pushing them to 20 percent of the speed of light.

Breakthrough Starshot

The plan requires technology currently out of our reach.  Milner has donated $100 million to support the research and development of the tech, in hopes of getting the project off the ground in the 20-year timeframe.  There a mix of both cautious optimism and thrilling excitement, with even the most pessimistic observers acknowledging what the project’s own research could yield.

“Starshot may not get us to the stars, but it should, at a minimum, help us develop the technologies that will bear useful in the future of space exploration”

– Jonathan McDowell, Harvard-Smithsonian CENTER for Astrophysics

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