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Visiting the Neighbors

November 11, 2016

The first starship won’t look anything like the U.S.S. Enterprise. In fact, you might need a magnifying glass just to see it. But if a new project pans out, it might be possible to launch such a tiny probe to a nearby star system within decades.

Breakthrough Starshot is a 100-million-dollar project funded by Yuri Milner, a Russian billionaire named for Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. It’s the second big space project funded by Milner; the first, which began early this year, is a search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Breakthrough Starshot is looking at ways to launch a probe that would weigh no more than a few grams. Advances in microelectronics might make it possible to make a starship-on-a-chip — a combination of camera, power supply, and communications all on a small semiconductor.

The probe would be propelled to the stars not by its own engines, but by a giant array of lasers on or near Earth. The lasers would aim at a small, thin sail attached to the probe. Within minutes, the lasers could accelerate the craft to perhaps 20 percent of the speed of light. At that speed, the probe could reach the nearest exoplanet, Proxima Centauri b, in just a couple of decades.

None of this will be easy to develop, though. Among many other challenges, it requires big advances in electronics, lasers, and interstellar communications. But it may represent our best chance to reach the stars anytime soon.


Script by Damond Benningfield

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