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On the way to the star?

Breakthrough Starshot's laser-driven sail

Image Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives

A mission to Proxima Centauri sounds as if it should take place in the distant future, but Breakthrough Starshot plans to get there in 70 years or so. Find out how in A&G.

The discovery of Proxima Centauri b – a potentially rocky planet that appears to be in the habitable zone of its star – sparked attention worldwide. But for those involved in the Breakthrough Initiatives, it represented more than just another exoplanet – it was a target. Breakthrough Starshot plans to develop the technology needed to reach another star withn 50 years and reckons the journey could take as little as 20 years. So, within a generation, just about, we could know have information coming back from close to another star.

Breakthrough Starshot is part of the Breakthrough Initiatives project inspired – and funded – by Yuri Milner. It is breathtakingly ambititous project: the project envisages light sails, perhaps fleets of them, sent on their way by ginormous lasers, far more powerful than anything we can build now. Of course, the technology boost from such a project is part of the point of doing them in the first place, but there are still unanswered questions about the feasibility and safety of the project. The array of laser beams could be a problem for any satellites that cross its path, for example. Oh, and the project is likely to cost about the same as the International Space Station.

But that's fair, really. Breakthought Starshot is such an audacious and appealing idea that it just might make it. We'll know (realtively) soon, as the team plans a 'test-of-concept' mission within 20 years. If that works, maybe we will manage some interstellar exploration, something that is currently only being undertaken by the Voyager spacecraft. 

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