Stephen Hawking and Silicon Valley entrepreneur Yuri Milner have announced their intentions to send a teeny tiny robotic spacecraft to the closest star system to Earth.

That’s Alpha Centauri for those of you who never played Star Control 2, and while it’s what astronomers would term relatively close, it’s still a whopping 4.37 light years away. That’s a 41 trillion km. Not exactly walking distance.

The spacecraft is so small it’s being called a “nanocraft”. It weighs less than a sheet of paper and it’s attached to a kite-sized sail made from a fabric that’s barely a few hundred atoms thick. Yes, atoms.

The “nanocraft” is part of Hawking and Milner’s R1.4 billion research project called Breakthrough Starshot, which aims to look into what technologies it will take to get the craft into space and up to a speed of 60 000 km/s – one-fifth the speed of light – in order to propel it on a twenty-year journey to Alpha Centauri.

The current proposed method of acceleration involves a massive Earth-bound laser array that will push the tiny vehicles to their ultimate speed, whose sails apparently respond to “the pressure of light”, according to The Guardian.

The idea is to find ways of getting vehicles, and ultimately mankind, into space using the best advances in tech known to man, including miniaturisation efforts in processing technology and new materials, factors that dramatically reduce the size and cost of launching things into space.

At the official launch on Tuesday, Hawking said “The human story is one of great leaps. Today we are preparing for the next great leap – to the stars.”

This is the third Breakthrough project to get buy-in from big-name figures in the scientific community, and it’s backed by more than just Hawking and Milner, who serve as advisory members on the project’s board. The actual project will be headed by Pete Worden, who lead the Nasa-Ames research division until joining the Breakthrough Starshot project, and will “be advised by a committee of distinguished engineers and scientists”.

The Breakthrough Prizes, which were established in 2012, are awarded to scientists and projects that contribute “fundamental research in physics, life sciences and mathematics”.

This certainly counts; we can’t wait to see how the project will overcome the manifold challenges it faces before the nanocraft leaves the planet.

[Source – The Guardian, Image – Wikimedia]


Deon got his first taste of PC gaming at the tender age of 11 when his father bought an 8088 XT, ostensibly to "help him with his homework". Instead, it introduced him to Leisure Suit Larry, King Graham, Sonny Bonds and many more, and Deon has been a PC gamer and hardware enthusiast ever since. He landed his first professional writing gig in 2006 at a prestigious local PC magazine, a very happy happenstance as he got to write for a living about things he loves - tech, PCs, gaming, and everything in between. He's been writing about it all ever since, and loves every minute of it.