Aerospace engineers have spent decades trying to push spacecraft to extreme speeds, and with great success. The New Horizons probe that just whistled by Pluto is our fastest flying spaceship. It can cover more than one million miles per day. But if we aimed New Horizons at Alpha Centauri, it would reach the star tens of thousands of years from now. Interstellar travel with existing propulsion technology is all but unimaginable.
But, new technology might be on the way.
At noon today, Yuri Milner, the Russian tech billionaire, will join Stephen Hawking atop Manhattan’s Freedom Tower, where the pair will announce Starshot, a $100 million dollar research program, the latest of Milner’s “Breakthrough Initiatives.” (Mark Zuckerberg will serve on Starshot’s board, alongside Milner and Hawking.) With the money, Milner hopes to prove that a probe could make the journey to Alpha Centauri in only 20 years.
“Everybody, including myself, thought that this wouldn’t be possible in our lifetime,” Milner told me in an interview.
Silicon Valley’s billionaires are famously pro-science, but even among this set, Milner has distinguished himself. He amassed most of his fortune by making gutsy investments in social-media companies, including an 8 percent pre-IPO stake in Facebook. But as a younger man, Milner read Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan. And at Moscow State University, he studied physics. In 2012, after his net worth spiked into the billions, Milner helped found the most lucrative prize in science. Its three annual awardees each take home $3 million dollars, more than twice the award granted to Nobel Prize Winners.
Milner calls himself a child of the space race. Last year, he bankrolled history’s most ambitious, well-funded SETI program—a close search of the nearest million stars for signs of intelligent life, alongside less granular scans of the Milky Way’s center, and the nearest hundred galaxies.
“I even carry the space race in my name,” Milner told me. Like many Russian boys born in the early 1960s, he was named for Yuri Gagarin, the first human being to reach orbit.
Today is the 55th anniversary of that historic first spaceflight. Milner will mark it by announcing his Alpha Centauri project, which will be headquartered on Sand Hill Road, in Menlo Park, the financial heart of Silicon Valley. Pete Worden, the former head of one of NASA’s largest research centers, will run day-to-day operations.
Milner wants his $100 million to fund research that will culminate in a prototype of a probe that can beam images back to Earth. He told me the images would arrive less than 5 years after the probe reached the star.
There are no official specs yet, but Milner said the probe would have a two-megapixel camera, along with star-finders to help it get its bearings, after it boots up on the approach to Alpha Centauri. The probe will target one of the system’s two sunlike stars. It will be aimed at a planet (or planets) in the star’s habitable zone, the temperate region where oceans don’t boil or freeze, but instead flow, nurturing the kind of complex chemistry that is thought to give rise to life.