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Nasa And Stephen Hawking To Launch A ‘Self-Healing’ Starship That Could Find A Habitable Planet Within 20 Years

This article was previously published on The Daily Mail and written byLibby Plummer and Victoria Woollaston and Ellie Zolfagharifard.


Nasa is working with Stephen Hawking to send a tiny nano-spacecraft to Alpha Centauri at one fifth the speed of light.

The starship – dubbed ‘StarChip’ – was first announced in April as part of the Breakthrough Starshot project, which also includes Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner among its backers.

The team have been working on the challenge of how the spacecraft could survive the intense interstellar radiation on the 20-year trip to Earth’s closest star system.

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New research suggests that ‘self-healing’ silicon chips could be the answer.

Announced in April on the 55th anniversary of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight, in which he became the first man in space, the Breakthrough Starshot project involves tiny so-called ‘nanocraft’ flying on sails pushed by beams of light through the universe.

They will travel to the Alpha Centauri star system 25 trillion miles (4.37 light years) to look for alien life.

Astronomers estimate that there is a reasonable chance of an Earth-like planet existing in the ‘habitable zones’ of Alpha Centauri’s three-star system.

There are still numerous technological challenges to be overcome before the mission can launch, not least the problem of space radiation.

Re-routing the mission to avoid high-radiation areas could add years to the mission, while protective shielding would add too much weight to the tiny spacecraft.

A new study from researchers at Nasa and the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) says that self-healing silicon chips could be used to prolong the life of the tiny spacecraft.

The chip’s tiny 20-nanometer features, make them lightweight and as well as resilient to cosmic rays, said the researchers.

‘Therefore, the lifetime of devices can be extended, which opens an opportunity for nano-spacecraft sustainable for more than 20 years of deep space exploration,’ says the paper.

The findings were presented at the International Electron Devices Meeting in San Francisco last week.

Stephen Hawking (left), Yuri Milner (center) and Mark Zuckerberg (right) have teamed up to launch a $100 million hunt for alien life. The project, dubbed 'Breakthrough Starshot', was announced in New York today

Stephen Hawking (left), Yuri Milner (center) and Mark Zuckerberg (right) have teamed up to launch a $100 million hunt for alien life. The project, dubbed ‘Breakthrough Starshot’, was announced in New York today


‘For the first time in human history, we can do more than look at the stars, we can reach them,’ said Yuri Milner, founder of the Breakthrough Initiatives, in April.

Each of these ‘interstellar sailboats’ is expected to carry cameras and a built in GPS to search deep space for habitable planets.

‘Fifty five years ago today, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space.

‘Today, we are preparing for the next great leap.’

‘Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever,’ commented Stephen Hawking, ‘Sooner or later, we must look to the stars.

‘Breakthrough Starshot is a very exciting first step on that journey.

‘With light beams, light sails and the lightest spacecraft ever built we can launch a mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation,’ said Hawking.

The $100 million research and engineering program will seek proof of concept for using light beam to propel super lightweight nanocraft to 20 per cent of light speed.

A possible fly-by mission could reach Alpha Centauri within about 20 years of its launch, Milner said, and also revealed Mark Zuckerberg is joining the project’s board.

These crafts are designed to take images of planets and other scientific data in our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, just over 20 years after their launch.

‘Today we commit to this next great leap into this cosmos, because we are human and our nature is to fly.’

The program will be led by Pete Worden, the former director of Nasa Ames Research Center, and advised by a committee of world-class scientists and engineers.

‘We take inspiration from Vostok, Voyager, Apollo and the other great missions,’ said Worden. ‘It’s time to open the era of interstellar flight, but we need to keep our feet on the ground to achieve this.’

The Alpha Centauri star system is 25 trillion miles (4.37 light years) away. With today’s fastest spacecraft, it would take about 30,000 years to get there.

When in orbit, the tiny craft would unfold thin sails and then be propelled by powerful laser beams from Earth

When in orbit, the tiny craft would unfold thin sails and then be propelled by powerful laser beams from Earth


Breakthrough Starshot aims to establish whether a gram-scale nanocraft, on a sail pushed by a light beam, can fly over a thousand times faster.

It brings the Silicon Valley approach to space travel, capitalising on exponential advances in certain areas of technology since the beginning of the 21st century.

Nanocrafts are gram-scale robotic spacecrafts comprising two main parts: A Starchip and Lightchip.

‘Starchip is about the size of a postage stamp, although a little bit thicker. It can be massed produced at the cost of an iPhone,’ said Milner.

The light beamer is modular and scalable. Once it is assembled and the technology matures, the cost of each launch is expected to fall to a few hundred thousand dollars.

The research and engineering phase is expected to last a number of years.  Following that, development of the ultimate mission to Alpha Centauri would require a budget comparable to the largest current scientific experiments.

However, the key elements of the proposed system design are based on technology either already available or likely to be attainable in the near future under reasonable assumptions.

The proposed light propulsion system is on a scale significantly exceeding any currently operational analog.The very nature of the project calls for global co-operation and support.

Clearance for launches would be required from all the appropriate government and international organizations.

As the technology required for interstellar travel matures, a number of additional opportunities will emerge, including the following:

Astronomers estimate that there is a reasonable chance of an Earth-like planet existing in the ‘habitable zones’ of Alpha Centauri’s three-star system.

A number of scientific instruments, ground-based and space-based, are being developed and enhanced, which will soon identify and characterize planets around nearby stars.

A separate Breakthrough Initiative will support some of these projects.

The Breakthrough Starshot initiative will establish a research grant program, and will make available other funding to support relevant scientific and engineering research and development.

The idea for a spacecraft to be equipped with a solar sail to use the solar wind for propulsion was described by the late astrophysicist Carl Sagan four decades ago.

Breakthrough Starshot is likely to target Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to Earth, where an an Earth-like planet may exist within its 'habitable zone.' It could also help confirm the existence of Planet Nine (illustrated)

Breakthrough Starshot is likely to target Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to Earth, where an an Earth-like planet may exist within its ‘habitable zone.’ It could also help confirm the existence of Planet Nine (illustrated)


It was theorised that solar sails could accelerate spacecraft far beyond the speeds of traditional fuels, to make interplanetary – and interstellar – travel more feasible.

This sail, measuring 345 square ft (32 square metres) in size, is made of an extremely reflective material called Mylar.

The most recent version of this technology has four triangular sails, made of mylar, that create a rectangular-shaped surface.  It can send a cubesat to an orbital altitude of 500 miles (800 km), before sails deploy creating a total surface area of 32 square metres.

The latest project is part of Milner’s decade-long search for extraterrestrial intelligence , which he set up last year, under the banner Breakthrough Initiatives.

Milner, who is worth $2.9 billion, has collaborated with Hawking before.

In July 2015, the two revealed a $100 million plan, called ‘Breakthrough Listen’, to look for alien life.

Worden said today that in the near future, Breakthrough Listen, will observe all stars within 25 light years from Earth.

‘In the last five years, we have discovered that planets in the habitable zone of stars are common,’ Breakthrough Initiatives’ the website states.

‘Based on the numbers discovered so far, there are estimated to be billions more in our galaxy alone.

‘And there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the visible Universe.

‘Yet we are still in the dark about life. Are we really alone? Or are there others out there?

‘It’s one of the biggest questions. And only science can answer it.’


This article was previously published on The Daily Mail and written byLibby Plummer and Victoria Woollaston and Ellie Zolfagharifard.

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