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Ambitious Project Would Use 'Starchips' To Travel To Alpha Centauri


Hey, yesterday, a Russian billionaire announced his plans for interstellar travel. His proposal has some credibility, both because of his money and because he's teaming up with the astrophysicist Stephen Hawking. They want to send a probe to the star system that is nearest to our sun. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports - maybe without intending the pun - that this plan is a longshot involving a laser.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: We'll get to that laser in a minute, but first, here's the challenge. The Alpha Centauri star system is about 25 trillion miles away. A trip would take thousands of years with existing technology. Yuri Milner, the wealthy backer of this new project, isn't willing to wait.


YURI MILNER: So how do we go faster? And how do we go further? How do we make this next leap?

BRUMFIEL: Milner's solution is to make everything smaller. Tiny spacecraft could be accelerated to high speeds that would cut the travel time dramatically. At a press conference in New York, he held up a prototype.


MILNER: This is a StarChip. It's about the size of a large postage stamp.

BRUMFIEL: Did you get that, StarChip? On this tiny chip he wants to squeeze an entire interstellar probe, complete with cameras and communications equipment. He wants to launch hundreds or even thousands. It makes sense to him that such a thing is possible. He made his fortune investing in high-tech innovators like Facebook and Twitter.


MILNER: This is the Silicon Valley approach to space flight.

BRUMFIEL: Less Silicon Valley is the giant laser - a Death Star-like system that will blast a beam from Earth's surface. It will be aimed at squares of foil called light sails, which will be unfurled behind each spacecraft. The laser will push the postage stamp probes to a fifth the speed of light. That's fast enough to reach Alpha Centauri in about 20 years. So is this realistic? I asked Bruce Betts with the nonprofit Planetary Society. He says it all sounds great except for a couple of small details.

BRUCE BETTS: Other than designing the giant laser and the tiny postage stamp, they're good to go.

BRUMFIEL: Betts says it would be tough to make tiny probes hardy enough to survive the long trip. Even if they did, they would have to turn to Earth and successfully send back pictures and data. Betts says the messages might get lost in the void.

BETTS: It begs the question - if you can fly to a forest and you see a tree fall but you can't mention it to anyone back home, did it really matter?

BRUMFIEL: The scientists and entrepreneurs involved know that there's a lot of work to be done. In fact, they say building these interstellar explorers could take a generation. That's why they want to get started now. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel
Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.
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