Interstellar missions could be a reality in our lifetimes. Renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner have joined hands to send hundreds of butterfly-sized ‘nanocraft’ to our nearest star system Alpha Centauri under the Breakthrough Starshot initiative. The star system is located 4.37 light years or about 25 trillion miles from Earth.

Stephen Hawking, Yuri Milner Join Hands For Interstellar Mission

Stephen Hawking says Earth might not last forever

Yuri Milner pledged $100 million to the mission that aims to take nanocraft far deeper into space than any existing probe has ever ventured. The nanocraft will be able to travel at 20% of the speed of light. That means it will reach Pluto in just three days instead of more than nine years. The plan was announced Tuesday at a press conference in New York. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg also sits on the board of the Breakthrough Starshot.

Stephen Hawking said in an email sent to reporters, “Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever.” Sooner or later, we have to look to the stars. Yuri Milner said all the technology needed to get a nanocraft to Alpha Centauri either already exists or will soon be developed. The butterfly-like spacecraft would rely on a technology that uses light to propel an object into space.

The nanocraft will carry power supply, cameras, photon thrusters, navigation and communication equipment. If everything goes as planned, a rocket would deliver a “mother ship” carrying thousands of tiny probes to space. From there, the probes will unfold their ultra-thin Lightsail. They will be propelled by a powerful Earth-based laser beaming structure.

About half a lifetime away

Scientists hope the tiny probes will be able to explore Alpha Centauri and other nearby star systems, studying their planets and looking for signs of life. But initially the probes will visit targets within our solar system, said Harvard University theoretical physicist Avi Loeb. Loeb is also chairman of the Breakthrough Starshot Advisory Committee. Jupiter’s icy moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus could be among the first batch of targets.

Even if everything goes as planned, it will take about 50 years for these probes to reach other star systems and start sending data back to Earth. Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking estimate it would take 20 years to get the mission off the ground. Once launched, it will take the nanocraft another 20 years to get to Alpha Centauri. After that, we will have to wait for another four years before data from outer space starts reaching home.