Say Russian billionaire and the credibility index slips by fifty points. It’s not fair but it’s true. Say interstellar travel and the needle slips another thirty notches. But then say Stephen Hawking. Then say Harvard Center for Astrophysics. Say Breakthrough Starshot.
Where is this going? Well, it appears this is going to our nearest neighbour, the star Alpha Centauri, because this is precisely what Professor Hawking has in mind, in partnership with Yuri Milner and sponsored by the Harvard astrophysicists.
What is proposed?
A fleet of what are described as nanocraft, tiny vessels propelled and continuously accelerated by a stream of photons until eventually they reach a velocity about a fifth of the speed of light. This is a staggering rate of movement, even though of course everything is relative, but it means that a craft launched from Earth could reach Alpha Centauri in about twenty years and so we could send out a flock of inquisitive starlings to touch the edge of the void long before we thought it might ever be possible.
How does it work?
A spacecraft less than a gram in weight is pulled by an ultra-light sail a few molecules thick. The spacecraft has a tiny computer on a minuscule wafer and if we doubt this, let us just consider what has been achieved in the last thirty years of miniaturisation.
We might actually be able to visit our nearest neighbour, a goal we thought was unattainable, but thanks to the absurd vision of people like Milner becomes closer than we suspected.
And what makes these insane dreams a reality?
Of course, it’s the very same thing that turns the blistering desert around Kuwait city into a garden.
Money from Yuri Milner. Money, we now hear, from Mark Zuckerberg and money in one of its many other forms from Harvard.
I suspect that people thought Elon Musk was mad. For that matter, I suspect myself that he still might be a little insane, but only this week Elon Musk’s SpaceX finally landed a reusable rocket on the deck of a drone ship pitching and heaving in the Pacific, thus revolutionising space travel. Why? Because Elon Musk was prepared to spend, and even burn, money.
Elon Musk thinks we can colonise Mars and until recently we’d all have said he was insane, but so far he’s delivered on everything he predicted he would, including his range of Tesla cars.
Where did Musk make all his money? The internet, an imaginary concept that hardly existed thirty years ago.
Where did Zuckerberg get his fortune? From a ludicrous concept that became Facebook.
How did Yuri Milner get rich? By investing in the internet.
All of them took a bet on a nebulous, ill-defined leap of imagination, which is exactly what they’re doing again today with Breakthrough Starshot, and a little help from Hawking and from Harvard.
When you were a child, did Alpha Centauri captivate your imagination?
It certainly captivated mine, this star so tantalisingly close at only four light-years away. Only four light-years! A star so close that it only takes light from it four years to reach us, unlike the fathomless distances of galaxies so far away that everything we see of them is long dead and we stare not only into the abyss but into a past so remote as to be beyond imagining.
To contemplate the visible universe is to be astonished, staggered by the vastness of it, but also to be aware that we’re looking at nothing more than a tiny slice, that things are out there more ancient than we can conceive and also that events are happening out there right now, trammelled by one overwhelming caveat: we cannot say what “now” means, since time is relative, as Einstein demonstrated. There is no such thing as a single time-line across the entire universe, and therefore to speak of a beginning and an end is to assume something that cannot be demonstrated since nobody can say that time is linear.
It reminds me of the two ants walking on a football, both agreed that it was flat, just as some humans at one time — perversely enough given the evidence of their eyes — once asserted that the Earth was flat. Given the complexity of the Void, who in their right minds could claim as a fact that time is linear?
And yet, considering how close we are to Alpha Centauri in cosmic terms, we might be able to approximate that curiously flexible concept of Now, even if it takes us four years to receive a signal and another four years to send a reply.
If the Breakthrough Starshot project succeeds, in twenty-four years we might be looking at images of a planet orbiting a star that is not our own star. A sun that is not our sun.
Who is to say what those images will reveal?
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