A formidable team of billionaires and scientists, including Stephen Hawking, have announced a mind-blowing new project.

Fifty-five years ago, the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had just returned from the first ever orbit of the Earth. He was the first person to reach space, and an instant hero.

A few months later, Yuri Milner was born, and named after Russia’s pride and joy. This week, on the anniversary of Gagarin’s historic mission, the billionaire announced a project so ambitious that it would have been unthinkable to the original spaceman. He plans to send hundreds of tiny lightweight spacecrafts on a 25 trillion-mile voyage to Earth’s nearest star system, Alpha Centauri.

With current space technology, this journey would take 30,000 years. Milner says he will do it in 20. It is ‘the Silicon Valley approach to space flight.’

The plan is called Breakthrough Starshot, and it is backed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and the world-famous physicist Stephen Hawking. ‘The human story is one of great leaps,’ Milner said. ‘Today we are preparing for the next great leap — to the stars.’

The project relies on huge advances in microelectronics — enough to fit the control system, camera, power supply and navigation system onto tiny silicon chips, weighing a gram each. They will be attached to feather-light solar sails, around the size of a kite and only hundreds of atoms thick. The ‘nanocrafts’ will then be beamed by an array of 100 billion-watt lasers on earth, accelerating them through space at one-fifth the speed of light, or 60,000km a second.

The team has already identified a series of ‘key challenges’ to overcome, including the project’s $10bn pricetag, the weight of the fuel, and finding a way to transmit data back to Earth.

But they are optimistic about the amazing potential of human ingenuity. ‘Gravity pins us to the ground but I just flew to America,’ said Hawking. ‘I lost my voice but I can still speak thanks to my voice synthesiser. How do we transcend these limits? With our minds and our machines.’

Reach for the stars

It is not the first time Hawking and Milner have collaborated on an ambitious project. Last year, they launched the Breakthrough initiatives Listen and Message, which are attempting to search for intelligent alien life. What dreamers! Is this not just a billionaire building toys, attracting attention and creating a very expensive form of entertainment for himself?

Genuinely not, say many experts. No scientist can write off these missions. As the project’s chairman, the astronomer Avi Loeb, puts it: ‘Looking is very different from going and visiting’. We must keep an open mind about the many wonderful things the universe has in store. After all, he says, ‘nature teaches us that its imagination is better than ours’.

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