Yuri Milner’s success as an entrepreneur is beyond reproach and while Bill Gates and others seem to want to save this planet, Mr. Milner want to get to the stars and learn the secrets of the cosmos through the used of robotic probes in the next twenty years.
Flanked by heavy-hitters, Milner announces his “Starshot” initiative in NYC
With Stephen Hawking and other notables on either side of him Monday, Yuri Milner announced that he’s more than happy to pay $100 million to get to our closest stars in the next generation.
Ahead of the announcement, Milner released a statement saying, “The human story is one of great leaps, 55 years ago today, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. Today, we are preparing for the next great leap—to the stars.”
Milner is, of course Russian but it’s more likely that his nod was not to his nation, but Gagarin’s place as the first man in space.
Milner, with collaboration in the planning process from numerous experts in their fields, hopes to use “nanocrafts” with probes, cameras, sensors and a communications array to get to our closest stars in something he’s calling “Breakthrough Starshot.”
Essentially, utilizing a ground-based kilometer-scale laser array Milner’s team would look to send 100-gigawatt laser pulses through the atmosphere for a few minutes while the “nanocrafts” deployed “light sails” in order to ride that “laser wind” to destinations never truly believed possible. Those beams if rode properly could propel the “nanocrafts” to their destinations at near relativistic speeds.
Milner and others believe that they could launch thousands of these nanocraft from a mothership in Earth’s orbit. The laser could “launch” one of these craft a day and see them off at speeds of up to 60,000 kilometers per second.
This is not Milner’s first moonshot. Just last year he ear-marked $100 million for the 10-year “Breakthrough Listen” to begin searching stars and galaxies for communications from aliens. A much smaller $1 million was awarded for “Breakthrough Message” which would see scientists composing messages for anyone listening for us.
Not some crazy idea he thought of this morning
Milner has been on about this for sometime now. Last year, he contacted Avi Loeb, an astrophysicist at Harvard University and new chairman of Breakthrough Starshot’s advisory board. Loeb is known for, let’s call them eccentric ideas, that are certainly out of the box.
Loeb nearly immediately imagined nanocraft, in fact, he insisted that nanocraft were the way to go knowing that extreme velocities would prove necessary for the ambitious “Breakthrough” project.
“Strip an iPhone from its case and interface, and the electronics—including the camera and the communications device—weigh on the order a gram,” Loeb says. “That’s almost everything you need for a nanocraft, and we practically have it right now thanks to the ongoing miniaturization of electronics.”
While ideas of propelling the nanocraft with rockets using antimatter annihilation or nuclear fusion reactors did come up, the team quickly said, “lasers” having looked at work from Philip Lubin, a physicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara who already envisioned nanocraft sailing on lasers. Lubin’s problem, among others, was the very modest grant he received from NASA to continue his work.
“There are two axes to the problem of interstellar flight,” Lubin says. “Things like antimatter or fusion rockets are all on the ‘real’ axis. The known laws of physics tell us they are realistic solutions, even if we don’t know how to realize them. Things like warp drives and wormholes are on the ‘imaginary’ axis—these are what I would call fictional solutions, because no one knows how to do them.” If you ask Lubin about a laser propulsion system the answer you’re likely to get from him is, “it is both realistic and realizable.”
Along with Milner and Hawking, the third member of Breakthrough Starshot’s board of directors is Mark Zuckerberg. Apparently, if you have billions, space is your thing.
This team knows that its suggestions sound absurd at first read or glance, but that is science at the end of the day.
“Any revolution in science or technology has an initial phase where people laugh at it,” Loeb says. “Sometimes the laughter is inspired by valid criticisms of an argument, but can also be because something appears very different and strange…What is certain is that the mainstream scientific community that works on research you are not supposed to laugh about—research that has a giggle factor of zero, let’s say—keeps making major mistakes in giggling about the wrong things.”
“We are serious people,” Loeb continues. “We will find whether this project is doable or not, and if it is not, we will admit that and move on.”