A group of scientists and other luminaries have joined astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner in recently announcing a bold new initiative to visit Alpha Centauri — the closest star system to our own—25 trillion miles or 4.37 light years away. This would happen within our lifetimes using tiny robot ships that are smaller than a cell phone in an operation called “Breakthrough Starshot”. The hypothetical space robots, called StarChip, would be launched into space and then use space sails, which use the pressure of sunlight for propulsion — a technique that has been demonstrated in space multiple times.
The robots will be built out of a gram-scale silicon wafer carrying cameras, photon thrusters, a power supply, navigation and communication equipment. The primary propulsion will come from a ground-based 100 GigaWatt laser fired at the 1-square-meter solar sail of the robot accelerating each nanocraft to about 20 percent the speed of light or roughly 135 million mph. Milner said Starshot will start out as a $100 million proof-of-concept to design, build, launch and propel a small fleet of "nanocraft" to Alpha Centauri in about 20 years' time from launch.
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