Stephen Hawking and Mark Zuckerberg Team Up With Russian Billionaire For Interstellar Space Mission

Last year, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg teamed up in a $100 million search for extra-terrestrial life.

Their privately-funded project, called Breakthrough Listen, is using three massive telescopes to cover 10 times as much of the sky as any previous search. The survey will scan the 1 million closest stars to Earth for radio and light signals emitted by potential aliens.

Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. One of the world's largest steerable radio telescopes and one of the telescopes that will be used in Breakthrough Listen.

Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. One of the world’s largest steerable radio telescopes and one of the telescopes that will be used in Breakthrough Listen.

This week, Hawking announced at the One World Observatory in New York City that they will be taking their search a step further with a new project called Breakthrough Starshot. Breakthrough Starshot is a second $100 million research and engineering program that aims to develop spacecraft that can eventually reach our nearest neighboring star system, Alpha Centauri.

“The first step of the program involves building light-propelled “nanocrafts” that can travel at relativistic speeds—up to 20 percent the speed of light. At such high velocities, the robotic spacecraft would pass Pluto in three days and reach our nearest neighboring star system, Alpha Centauri, just over 20 years after launch,”

…according to Gizmodo.

Essentially, the plan is to shoot tiny spacecraft through a laser at speeds up to 100 million miles per hour using technology that will be developed and ready to use in the near future, according to Milner.

If spacecraft did make it to Alpha Centauri, they could send valuable measurements and pictures back to Earth. This data could be used to learn more about our universe, determine if our neighboring star system hosts a habitable planet, and more.

But right now, it is estimated the project will take 20 years of research and development before launch, 20 years to reach the neighboring star system after launch, and another few years for the data to be beamed back to Earth once the spacecraft arrive. So don’t expect any “breakthrough” data from this mission anytime soon.

As far-fetched as sending spacecraft to a star system 4.37 light-years away may sound, the project has already gained a great deal of attention and funding. Estimated to cost anywhere between $5 and $10 billion when it’s all said and done, Milner has already dished out an initial investment of $100 million (not counting his $100 million investment in Breakthrough Listen) to get things moving.

Milner hopes that his investments in Breakthrough Listen and now Breakthrough Starshot will lay a foundation that will eventually attract other large investors.

Professor Stephen Hawking, Theoretical physicist and Mathematician Freeman Dyson, Ann Druyan, Theoretical Physicist Avi Loeb, Dr. Mae Jemison and Dr. Pete Worden attend the New Space Exploration Initiative 'Breakthrough Starshot' Announcement at One World Observatory on April 12, 2016 in New York City. / Image Credit: Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

New Space Exploration Initiative ‘Breakthrough Starshot’ Announcement at One World Observatory on April 12, 2016 in New York City / Image Credit: Jemal Countess/Getty Images

The project also has a prominent team of supporters, not only does Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg, Yuri Milner and English cosmologist Stephen Hawking chair the board for the Breakthrough projects, their latest project Breakthrough Starshot will be lead by former NASA Ames Research Center Director, Pete Worden.

Breakthrough Starshot will also be teamed by British astronomer royal Martin Rees, Nobel Prize-winning astronomer Saul Perlmutter, notable mathematician Freeman Dyson, an executive producer of the TV series “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” Ann Druyan and Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb, to name a few.

Read more here from The New York Times, Gizmodo and Space.com. And learn more about the Breakthrough Listen and Breakthrough Starshot projects here.

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