″Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!″ Move over, Robinson Family, there may be a new Alpha Centauri plan. Astrophysicist Stephen Hawkings, along with the billionaire physicist Yuri Milner, are considering the launching of thousands of nanocraft into the galaxy. A mothership would lift a cargo hold full of such interstellar probes, then release them in deep space. Powerful lasers based on Earth would then propel these probes, which would deploy foiled wings to ride the laser beams. Within two minutes, these probes could reach speeds one-fifth of that of light, taking them some 600,000 miles out. At that rate, the probes could reach our nearest neighbor in the galaxy, Alpha Centauri, some 4.37 light years away, in just 20 years.
Milner believes that such a mission could be developed in the next 20 years and has pledged $100 Million dollars of his own money to get the ball rolling. Others are interested as well, including Facebook billionaire, Mark Zuckerberg. The plan is called Breakthrough Starshot. Milner, Zuckerberg and Hawkings will head the group organizing the mission.
The space probes themselves would be small, about the size of an iPhone. But, they would have the ability to take pictures and gather some basic science information, which they would beam back to Earth. These robot explorers would chart the path to the stars like digital butterflies, scattered across the expanse of outer space. Some may not reach their destinations for centuries. However, like plucky troopers, the robotic space probes will go about on their mission fearlessly.
Fans of the old TV series, ″Lost In Space″ will recall that the Robinson Family was originally heading to Alpha Centauri to establish a human colony there. The star system contains three stars, a trinary system. Both Alpha Centauri A and B are about the size of our Sun, with A being slightly larger and about three times brighter than B. They both orbit a common center in the system, taking about 80 years to complete one orbit. They are often referred to as Alpha Centauri AB as they are so close to each other, just a few billion miles apart.
Alpha Centauri C, also known as Proxima Centauri, is much further away from its neighbors, but closer to us. At times, it is only 4.24 light years away. Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf star and is only about one-eighth the size of our Sun. In terms of brightness, it is quite dim, which is why it was only discovered by telescopes on Earth in 1915. It takes about 500,000 years to orbit Alpha Centauri AB, which lies about 0.2 light years away.
The latest data shows that the Robinson Family would have a hard time in the Alpha Centauri system. There are no planets which could possibly support human life. Due to all of the gravitational forces being played out by three stars, there is no solid evidence of any terrestrial, rock-based planets. There is a possible planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B, but it is very small and orbits that star about once every 12 to 20 days. Certainly none of significant size or within the so-called ′Habitable Zone′ have been found as of yet. Nor have any gas-giant planets like Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus or Neptune been discovered. There does appear to be an outer cloud of material, similar to our Oort Cloud, which is a harbor for potential comets and such.
The overall cost of this Alpha Centauri plan, known as Breakthrough Starshot, is estimated to be about $10 Billion dollars. I don′t know how rich Stephen Hawkings is, but his two friends for this project, Yuri Milner and Mark Zuckerberg, can probably pony up the cash. I′m sure that other billionaires and millionaires might chip in, perhaps even us peasants, too, if they offer to put our names on the tiny nanocraft the plan calls for using. If they can achieve and maintain a speed of one-fifth that of light, there are other star systems in the immediate neighborhood which might be worth checking out. This scheme is definitely a legacy project, given the time involved in getting any results. But if you like long-term planning, this may be a project you can appreciate.