Billionaire’s hunt for aliens will include a fleet of tiny spacecraft

Russian billionaire Yuri Milner is looking for aliens, and putting up a lot of his own money to do it. Adding to the $100 million he pledged to spend on alien hunting projects last summer, he recently announced he will spend another $100 million to create miniature spacecraft to look for extraterrestrial life in our closest neighboring star system, 25 trillion miles away.

Last July, Milner pledged to spend $100 million over ten years to help expand the ability for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) to listen to a larger amount of the radio spectrum in their quest to intercept an alien radio signal. This was being done through what he calls Breakthrough Initiatives.

Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking announcing the $100 million Breakthrough Initiative in London. (Photo via Breakthrough Initiative)

Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking announcing the $100 million Breakthrough Initiative in London. (Credit: Breakthrough Initiative)

In an announcement made earlier this week, Milner introduced a new program called Breakthrough Starshot. This program intends to build “nanocraft” that can sail the 25 trillion miles to Alpha Centauri, the closest solar system, in order to search for alien life and habitable planets.

It sounds like science fiction, but he says most of the technology needed already exists. According to Milner, advancements in microelectronics is what makes it possible. The proposed nanocraft will consist of a small microchip and a sail propelled by laser. The craft will have to be very lightweight, but it is now possible to produce a tiny chip that can include a computer, camera, navigation and communication equipment and anything else the little spaceship will need.

The nanocraft will also be fast, traveling at speeds up to 20% the speed of light. At that speed it will still take 20 years to reach Alpha Centauri, but at least it will not be alone. Milner says they will send a fleet.

“Instead of sending one big expensive machine, you can send hundreds of these,” Milner told Popular Science.  “Interstellar medium is dangerous. There are dust particles that can destroy your technology. The math today shows that between the sun and Alpha Centauri something like this, if it flies this way [the thin edge as the leading edge] it will have four collisions of dust particles on the one-micron size.”

Each craft will cost about the same as in iPhone, making a fleet affordable. And with the danger of dust particles obliterating the craft, redundancy will help increase the chances for success.

Once they reach their destination, the little spacecraft will have a few hours to record video and whatever other telemetry they will be able to obtain. The data will then be sent back to earth via lasers. However, because we are talking about such vast distances, the data will still take four years to reach earth, even at the speed of light.

Milner admits there are many challenges ahead. For instance, it will take great precision to aim the lasers sending the data back to earth. There is also the matter of the lasers providing the light to propel the craft.

Artist depiction of Breakthrough Startshot. (Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives)

Artist depiction of Breakthrough Starshot. (Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives)

The light sails will not be propelled by the sun, but by an array of lasers on earth that will take 100 gigawatts. It will only take a few minutes for the lasers to propel the craft to their top speed, but the lasers will need to be very precise.

“If you’re slightly out of the beam, then you’re off completely,” explains Milner. “Can we devise a form of sail that will be stable on the beam? If it moves sideways, then it automatically moves inwards? There are many small and relatively complicated challenges like this.”

Even with the challenges, Milner is confident it can be done.

“It is possible there will be roadblocks, but we can move forward in many of those directions. This first $100 million is really just the proof of concept.”

So what if his nanocraft make it and they do find aliens? Milner says, “I think that there is a possibility of some life, but not intelligent life. So hopefully we will see something, but not too scary.”

Stephen Hawking could be at fault for making Milner worried about scary aliens. Hawking was part of Milner’s SETI announcement last summer, and was also present at the announcement of Breakthrough Starshot this week.

Hawking has expressed a fear that if we meet an advance extraterrestrial civilization, it might not go so well for the human race. At the Breakthrough Starshot event, when asked what Earthling should do if they meet aliens, Hawking replied, “We should hope that they don’t find us.”

However, he says he does think they are out there.

“There are at least a hundred billion galaxies in the visible universe, so it seems likely that there are others out there,” Hawking told the crowd.

It will take a few years to develop the spacecraft, but Milner is motivated to make it happen.

He told Popular Science, “I feel we have responsibility to push this forward if we can. People have been developing this technology, not specifically for this project, but we have this capability now. And I’m convinced that if something is possible, somebody is going to do it. So I think we just really want to see if it’s practically possible.”

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