Is there life out there? Stephen Hawking certainly thinks so

By Richard van Rensburg
15 April 2016

Hundreds of tiny spacecraft – so-called nanocraft – are powered by light beams to reach incredible speeds en route to the Alpha Centauri star, hopefully making a breakthrough in the ongoing search for life elsewhere in the universe . . .

Hundreds of tiny spacecraft – so-called nanocraftare powered by light beams to reach incredible speeds en route to the Alpha Centauri star system, hopefully making a breakthrough in the ongoing search for life elsewhere in the universe . . . 

This in a nutshell is the astonishing plan for a space mission recently announced by Professor Stephen Hawking at the One World Observatory in New York.

“Today we’re committing ourselves to the next giant leap into the cosmos,” the brilliant physicist said about Breakthrough Starshot, a joint mission with Russian billionaire Yuri Milner. Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg is also a director of Starshot.

Read more: 9 weird things that happen to astronauts in space

“That we’re able to overcome our limitations is what makes us unique. And the limit we’re confronting now is the vast space between us and the stars. But we can now cross it: with light beams and a light sail and the smallest spacecraft ever created, we can launch a mission to Alpha Centauri in a generation,” Hawking said.

Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to Earth, but still 40 trillion km or 4,37 light years away: in a conventional spacecraft it would take more than 30 000 years to travel there. But Hawking believes if their plans to use a laser-powered nanocraft succeed the dizzying mission could be reduced to just 20 years.

The Starshot technology involves creating tiny craft, hardly weighing a gram each, that are to be launched by rockets into space where they will unfurl extremely thin and light sails. They’ll be driven further into the cosmos by a vast array of laser beams of 100 gigawatt intensity and accelerate to speeds of up to 161 million km/h. This is a fifth of the speed of light, or more than a thousand times faster than what’s possible with current technology.

Read more: This photo an astronaut took of South Africa from space will take your breath away

If a single nanocraft should indeed reach Alpha Centauri in two decades’ time it will take another four years for the information it transmits to reach Earth. But who knows, if things go smoothly, such a mission could well answer some of the questions humanity has wrestled with for centuries.

Earthlike planets have already been spotted in the vicinity of Alpha Centauri’s three stars and scientists are optimistic that some could be in the so-called Goldilocks zone, an area that’s neither too hot or cold to sustain human life.

Each nanocraft will be equipped with cameras, photon thrusters, power supply, navigation and communication equipment, all of course on an incredibly small scale. To think that Apollo 11 with its Saturn V-rocket, used to reach the moon, weighed hundreds of tons, the bulk of which consisted of fuel.

The Voyager space probe has already managed to progress beyond our galaxy, and is currently in interstellar space, but no spacecraft has yet reached another solar system.

Milner said during the announcement that if the Voyager had left Earth in prehistoric times when humans were dispersing from Africa to the rest of the world, it would have reached Alpha Centauri just around now.

Read more: Anybody out there? Mysterious radio waves from deep space leave scientists baffled

“So how do we go faster? By leaving the fuel behind.” He estimates that the project, which kicks off with a first phase costing R1,45 billion, could ultimately cost R145 billion.

Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever, Hawking cautioned. “Sooner or later we must look to the stars."

Even if it means humanity has to start its stellar outreach on a minuscule scale...

Speaking of space…

Have you booked your tickets for Gateway to Space: The Exhibition yet? Click here for a sneak peak of what’s in store at the exhibition.

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Sources: breakthroughinitiatives.org, CNN, The Daily Telegraph, ABC

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