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Space & Astronomy

Hawking and NASA develop interstellar probe

By T.K. Randall
December 12, 2016 · Comment icon 18 comments

Is it possible to reach our nearest neighbor within two decades ? Image Credit: NASA
Professor Stephen Hawking has teamed up with NASA to design and develop an interstellar nano-starship.
Back in April, billionaire Yuri Milner and physicist Stephen Hawking revealed a new project known as Breakthrough Starshot which aimed to send miniature postage stamp-sized spacecraft to the Alpha Centauri system within two decades at speeds of up to 20% that of the speed of light.

Large numbers of these tiny probes would be accelerated up to speed by lasers on the Earth's surface. Equipped with cameras and other sensors, the spacecraft would be able to record data about a distant planet before transmitting that information back home.

Finding a way to enable these miniature probes to survive for two decades while exposed to the high-energy radiation of deep space however has proven to be something of a challenge.

Now though, NASA has come forward with several possible ways to help solve the problem.

One of these would involve plotting a specific route which will bypass the high-radiation areas, however this could make the trip much longer and may not protect the probes in the long run.
A second option would be to install electromagnetic shielding in the probes, but this would also prove problematic as it would increase the size, weight and cost of the spacecraft.

Yet another option would be to build the probes using self-repairing microchips - a technology that would enable them to continuously repair over time no matter how much damage they sustained.

Right now though the project is still very much in the early planning stages.

"The limit that confronts us now is the great void between us and the stars," said Hawking.

"But now we can transcend it. With light beams, light sails, and the lightest spacecraft ever built, we can launch a mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation."

Source: Independent | Comments (18)

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Recent comments on this story
Comment icon #9 Posted by Derek Willis 8 years ago
Well, if he was not making a "warning" he should have used less alarmist language. In the article from the Guardian - with the title "Steven Hawking Warns Against Seeking Out Aliens" - with references to receiving messages from aliens, he is quoted as saying: "...we should be wary of answering back." He then goes on to justify this by noting how aliens may be so advanced they will look on us as being no more valuable than bacteria. Whilst the direct aim of the "nano probes" project... [More]
Comment icon #10 Posted by psyche101 8 years ago
I didn't even realise Favourite Places is available for viewing, as far as I know it is only on Curiosity Stream, of which I am not a member.  I do know the "warnings" attributed to him over and again over the last 5 years or so are a misinterpretation by Journalists, I am sad to say even Space dot com got dragged into that ignorant black hole.  Hawkins initial comments were clearly speculation about a scenario that "might" happen. Not in any way a warning, it was taken from his series (pretty sure it was Into The Universe) and if you watch that, this becomes glaringly apparent. “We only h... [More]
Comment icon #11 Posted by Derek Willis 8 years ago
We all know the media manipulate what people say to maximize the impact of headlines. That said, Prof Hawking - the most famous living scientist in the world, and now a "celebrity" - is media savvy and would not have been so naive as to have not known what way his statements would be portrayed. There is a saying used by old hacks: "It's not what a journalist writes that matters, its what people read that matters". And of course anything Hawking - or anyone else for that matter - says regarding aliens is speculation because we do not yet know if they exist. However, I can't see how the phras... [More]
Comment icon #12 Posted by kartikg 8 years ago
what will be the role of Hawkins in this, he is a theoretical physicist and building a probe is entirely an engineering problem so what is his contribution,? 
Comment icon #13 Posted by Derek Willis 8 years ago
Call me a cynic, but what better way is there to get publicity than by having the most famous scientist in the world as a team member? 
Comment icon #14 Posted by psyche101 8 years ago
It is an elephant. The media have been spouting this as a warning for a good six years, every six months or more, I doubt that correction would even be possible.  He does make his position clearer when asked at the Breakthrough project launch: "We don't know much about aliens, but we know about humans. If you look at history, contact between humans and less intelligent organisms have often been disastrous from their point of view, and encounters between civilizations with advanced versus primitive technologies have gone badly for the less advanced. A civilization reading one of our messages c... [More]
Comment icon #15 Posted by psyche101 8 years ago
To be fair, he is the world's foremost theoretical physicist, cosmologist and Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology within the University of Cambridge. Best man for the job really. 
Comment icon #16 Posted by Derek Willis 8 years ago
I think we will have to agree to disagree on our interpretation of what Prof Hawking said. The quotation you provide reads to me like a warning that aliens - should we ever encounter them - could be dangerous. But if you don't read it that way, fair enough. The Voyager probes will be long dead before they reach any star. The likelihood of them being encountered by aliens is vanishingly small, but the fact they are out there means there is a possibility. Same with the Breakthrough probes. They will be tiny, but who can say what detection methods advanced aliens will have. I think it is inevitab... [More]
Comment icon #17 Posted by Derek Willis 8 years ago
The world's foremost theoretical physicist who has yet to win a Nobel Prize, and whose work on black hole radiation is currently being thrown into doubt by people such as Leonard Susskind - but who has ever heard of him? No one doubts Prof Hawkin's abilities, but the fact that an article can have the title "Hawking and NASA Develop Interstellar Probe" is a good indication of his value to the project.
Comment icon #18 Posted by psyche101 8 years ago
And same, I just feel the deors of "might be, Maybe Could be" and "if" reminiscent of a warning as such. And as I say, it seems all the more apparent having watched the series it features in, which is also speculative. I cannot see how it is not obvious that it is just one possible scenario being voiced.  Again, to me it sounds like the potential gain outweighs the potential risk.  I would agree, first contact will be by communication that is logical, it is just I really really doubt there is life in the Alpha System. 

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