Hawking: Let’s send a spacecraft to Alpha Centauri

A physicist predicts a fiery end for Earth by 2600, given overcrowding, and he pitched that idea in China in part to build support for his Breakthrough Starshot, which would send a tiny spacecraft to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star to our own sun, to send back pictures of possibly habitable planets, Forbes reports.

Speaking in a video presentation to the Tencent WE Summit in Beijing, Stephen Hawking, a renowned cosmologist, said the population explosion we are now experiencing would eventually spell doom for the Earth, as our power consumption would threaten to turn the Earth into a fireball hurtling through space.

Mr Hawking has been part of the Breakthrough Starshot project, which is developing a way to send ultra-small “nanocrafts” into space that can reach extremely fast velocities and span some of the vast distances of deep space in a human lifetime.

In the last decade and a half, rapid technological advances have opened up the possibility of light-powered space travel at a significant fraction of light speed. This involves a ground-based light beamer pushing ultra-light nanocrafts—miniature space probes attached to lightsails—to speeds of up to 100 million miles an hour. Such a system would allow a flyby mission to reach Alpha Centauri in just over 20 years from launch, beaming home images of its recently-discovered [and possibly life-supporting] planet Proxima b, and any other planets that may lie in the system, as well as collecting other scientific data such as analysis of magnetic fields.

The pictures could theoretically arrive back on Earth by the middle of the century, assuming a tiny spaceship could be sent flying toward Alpha Centauri, a mere 4½ light years away, at near the speed of light. The spaceship would pass Mars in about an hour, pass beyond Pluto’s orbit in a few days, and reach Alpha Centauri within 20 years or so.

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Paul Katula

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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