Russian billionaire, Yuri Milner, wants to learn more about Alpha Centauri- one of Earth’s closest neighbors; a solar system with three stars.
Milner, along with Physicist Stephen Hawking, announced in a news conference on Tuesday a project called Breakthrough Starshot. They suggested that within decades, humans may be able to send groups of small stamp-sized probes to space.
“A program of research and innovation exploring the questions of life and universe. But life in the universe does not only mean extraterrestrial life, it also means us,” Milner said.
He is reaching for interstellar travel and added “it can be done.”
Alpha Centauri is more than 4.3 light-years away or 40 trillion kilometers. Using current technology it would take about 30,000 years to get there.
The project hopes to cut that journey time to just 20 years by using a huge Earth-based laser to enable the 'nanocraft' to travel at about one-fifth the speed of light.
"The thing would look like the chip from your cell phone with this very thin gauzy, light sail," said project leader Pete Worden, the former director of NASA's Ames Reserach Center.
"Without new methods of propulsion we simply cannot get very far," Hawking said. "Light is the most pragmatic technology available."
Milner is investing $100 million for research and development, but the whole project could perhaps cost up to $10 billion.
If the nanocraft reached Alpha Centauri and were able to take pictures, it would take about four years to transmit them back to earth.
The target would be to locate a planet with potential for holding life. No such planet has been discovered yet at Alpha Centauri, but experts say one may lurk there.
"If this mission comes to fruition it will tell us as much about ourselves as about Alpha Centauri," said Milner at Tuesday's news conference in New York.