The story of humanity is a story of great leaps – out of Africa, across oceans, to the skies and into space. Since Apollo 11’s ‘moonshot’, we have been sending our machines ahead of us – to planets, comets, even interstellar space.
But with current rocket propulsion technology, it would take tens or hundreds of millennia to reach our neighboring star system, Alpha Centauri. The stars, it seems, have set strict bounds on human destiny. Until now.
In the last decade and a half, rapid technological advances have opened up the possibility of light-powered space travel at a significant fraction of light speed. This involves a ground-based light beamer pushing ultra-light nanocrafts – miniature space probes attached to lightsails – to speeds of up to 100 million miles an hour. Such a system would allow a flyby mission to reach Alpha Centauri in just over 20 years from launch, beaming home images of its recently-discovered planet Proxima b, and any other planets that may lie in the system, as well as collecting other scientific data such as analysis of magnetic fields.
Breakthrough Starshot aims to demonstrate proof of concept for ultra-fast light-driven nanocrafts, and lay the foundations for a first launch to Alpha Centauri within the next generation. Along the way, the project could generate important supplementary benefits to astronomy, including solar system exploration and detection of Earth-crossing asteroids.
A number of hard engineering challenges remain to be solved before these missions can become a reality. They are listed here, for consideration by experts and public alike, as part of the initiative’s commitment to full transparency and open access. The initiative will also establish a research grant program, and will make available other funding to support relevant scientific and engineering research and development.