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Exploring Stephen Hawking's 'Starshot' Project

Today physicist Stephen Hawking and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announced the Breakthrough Starshot Project, an initiative to send multiple tiny crafts to the Alpha Centauri star system, some four light-years away.

Could it work, and what could it mean for the future of space exploration? Here & Now’s Robin Young discusses the project with  Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Interview Highlights: Jonathan McDowell

What exactly is “Starshot”?

“In order to get to the stars, I think this is our best shot. I’m very excited about this announcement. You need a tiny spaceship because heavy spaceships are too hard to go fast. The thing is, you need to go fast, right, because Alpha Centauri is a really long way away. The Voyagers are heading out toward the stars, they are going to take 25,000 years to get there. That’s not acceptable. So, you make a spacecraft that fits on a single chip, just a few inches across. And there’s a young engineer called Zach Manchester who has done exactly that. The spacecraft aren’t very capable yet, but they can be made so. Then, the trick is accelerating with the pressure of light to accelerate a big, thin film of plastic that’s shiny and catches the laser light so it goes faster. That’s been demonstrated by the Japanese in interplanetary space a couple of years ago, but no one’s got it, you know, really fast and we’re talking about putting something a thousand times faster than any human artifact has ever done.”

So it’s all about nanotechnology?

“Yes. Little tiny fleet of nanotechnology with big lasers on Earth pushing them along and that’s going to be interesting to see.”

“Starshot” is a $100-million project. Yet that’s not enough.

“That 100 million, they are investing to get the technology to the point where it makes sense for governments and agencies like NASA to put in the billions that would be needed to do it for real.”

Why is this something worth pursuing?

“I think, ultimately, we’ve discovered in recent years there are many planets the size of Earth going around other stars. We know there are other places for us to go, so now it’s time to think about how to get there.”

What is the project’s timeline?

“I think 10 years to get to demonstrating something accelerated with a laser light sail, but a generation to be able to do it for real to Alpha Centauri.”


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