New Mission Will Sling Tiny Robots Trillions of Miles Away
published during a waxing gibbous moon.


tiny robots

A 100-gigawatt Earth-based laser array fling the tiny robots trillions of miles away from Earth. Credit: Breakthrough Starshot

We are here. Where is everybody? Those are the questions a $100 million project hopes to answer with an intergalactic trek to probe for extraterrestrial life. While the mission, led by cosmologist Stephen Hawking and Silicon Valley darling Yuri Milner, is likely decades away from launching, it’s already churning headlines after a news conference last Tuesday.

The voyage aims to reach Alpha Centauri, our neighboring star system located about four light-years from Earth. That’s where it becomes the stuff of sci-fi dreams: A rocket would ship a fleet of about a thousand tiny robot probes in a “mothership,” as detailed in a report from The New York Times. The robots would then unfold sails, and driven with laser-powered light beams from Earth, scatter into the cosmos to collect data — much like Dorothy tornado device filled with sensors in Twister.

It would take 20 years traveling at one-fifth the speed of light, or 100 million miles per hour, to get there.

Russian-born billionaire Yuri Milner helped found the Breakthrough prizes, awarded in the fields of physics, life sciences, and mathematics. In an interview with Time, he explained his hankering to celebrate intellectual achievement, which he feels takes a backseat to athletic and artistic worship in our society. Named after famed cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, Milner has initially financed $100 million of research for the project.

The philanthropist has a rich history of Silicon Valley investments in social media, including Twitter, Spotify, and Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg has even joined Hawking and Milner as a member of Breakthrough Starshot’s board.

Where the program can actually work is uncertain. Space is a hostile place, and sending “nanocrafts” roughly 25 trillion miles would cost upwards of $10 billion. Then there’s the issue of time: The mission likely won’t take off for another couple decades until more investors take notice. After 20 years of travel — its speed already a scientific feat when compared to conventional rocket propulsion, which would take thousands of years — it would take another four years to beam back data.

But as Hawking concluded, “Gravity pins us to the ground but I just flew to America. I lost my voice but I can still speak thanks to my voice synthesizer. How do we transcend these limits? With our minds and our machines.”