Yuri Milner is a Russian venture capitalist and the organizer of the Breakthrough Prizes in science and mathematics. He also has developed two Breakthrough Initiatives – projects intended to expand our knowledge and capabilities in interstellar communication. And yes, he was named after Yuri Gagarin, who became the first man to go into space 55 years ago this week.
Earlier this week Milner joined Stephen Hawking to announce the third Breakthrough Initiative – Starshot. The Star in question is Alpha Centauri, and the goal of Breakthrough Starshot is to demonstrate proof of concept for using light beams to propel very tiny spacecraft to Alpha Centauri in 20 years from time of launch. That would mean the craft would be traveling at over 21 percent the speed of light, or several thousand times the speed of the New Horizons craft currently whizzing to the Outer Kuiper Belt.
Achieving the goal requires advances in scale for phased laser arrays (for the light beams), and for small spacecraft (I think the term nanoscale just doesn’t fit, at least for these spacecraft, as they would still be visible to the eye). That said, the organizers are convinced that the advances could be achieved based on technology either currently available or expected to be in the near term. Of course, with the mission envisioned for Starshot taking 20 years, what is considered short term for Starshot might be longer than we expect. The final ships would be very light and propelled by sail, and a mothership would launch the small craft into space. Milner describes the lightsail-propelled craft in more detail in this interview with The Atlantic.
The $100 million committed to Starshot will help fund research toward addressing these technical challenges, and the project anticipates encouraging global collaboration in these efforts. As with many large-scale space projects, there are anticipated ancillary benefits, such as the development of a very large scale telescope and the ability to better observe asteroids and other near-Earth objects. As with other Breakthrough Initiatives, the output of the project will be transparent, open access and based on research in the public domain.