“The Alpha Centauri Mission” –World’s Science and Internet Elite ‘Take Control’ of the Search for Life in the Cosmos (A ‘Galaxy’ Insight)





An open letter a “manifesto” of sorts, framed and singed by many of the great scientists and minds of our century –from Stephen Hawking to Frank Drake, Lord Martin Rees, to Caltech’s Kip Thorne shown above– was published this past April 2016 (and posted below), outlining the philosophical foundations that inspired the Breakthrough Starshot project and the search for the answer to the seminal question of the 21st Century: “Are we alone in the universe?”

As all the world knows by now, Yuri Milner, the Russian billionaire Internet investor, and Stephen Hawking, the famed astrophysicist, have revealed plans for an interstellar mission, $100 million Breakthrough Starshot, that would launch chip-sized robotic probes at more than 25 percent the speed of light for 20-year journeys on the 25-trillion mile trip our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri.

A huge ground-based laser will push the swarms of “laser sails” (up to tens of thousands of probes per year) propelled by light from the sun toward their exotic destination. Light exerts very little pressure, but prior projects have already successfully tested a number of solar sails — spacecraft propelled by light from the sun. As a prelude to the journey, Starshot could launch interplanetary missions to explore unsolved mysteries of our solar system — driving “space-chips” to Mars in roughly 30 minutes, or to the potential life bearing habitats of Enceladus, Titan, and Europa.



Scientists estimate the orange dwarf Alpha Centauri B system is slightly older than our 4.6-billion-year old solar system at anywhere from 4.8 billion to 6.5 billion years old. If life on a planet or moon in the habitable zone of Alpha Centauri B evolved similarly as it did on Earth, then primitive forms of life could already have flourished there when the young Earth collided with a Mars-sized object, forming our moon.



Jonathan McDowell from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said that Starshot is humanity’s best chance of reaching Alpha Centauri, but has several hurdles to surmount. “The trick is accelerating with the pressure of light to accelerate a big, thin film of plastic that’s shiny and catches the laser light so it goes faster,” he said. “That’s been demonstrated by the Japanese in interplanetary space a couple of years ago, but no one’s got it really fast and we’re talking about putting something a thousand times faster than any human artifact has ever done.” McDowell said that it could take a decade to get a spacecraft to accelerate with a light sail, and longer to adapt the technology for the Starshot nanocraft. “I think 10 years to get to demonstrating something accelerated with a laser light sail, but a generation to be able to do it for real to Alpha Centauri.”

Harvard physics professor Abraham Loeb said that the Starshot project is made possible by recent advances in the miniaturization of electronics: “This method we’re talking about was conceived as soon as the laser was invented … The problem back then was that people thought that they needed to take humans along,” he explained. “The big technological advance over the past decades has been the miniaturization of electronics, smart electronics. It was all driven by the cellphone industry. If you look at an iPhone and strip it from the case and the human interface, you’re left with smart electronics that weigh roughly a gram, much lighter than anything else to use.”

Loeb said that Starshot will be able to rapidly explore the Solar System. “Just to give you an example, to get to Pluto it would take three days instead of the 9½ years it took New Horizons to get there. If we launch at a fifth of the speed of light, it’ll get there the same week,” he said.



The seminal “Open Letter,”  the Alpha Centauri Manifesto,  below, lays down the foundational thinking behind the Breakthrough project.

The story of humanity is a story of great leaps – out of Africa, across oceans, to the skies and into space. Since Apollo 11’s ‘moonshot’, we have been sending our machines ahead of us – to planets, comets, even interstellar space. A mature civilization, like a mature individual, must ask itself this question. Is humanity defined by its divisions, its problems, its passing needs and trends? Or do we have a shared face, turned outward to the Universe?

In 1990, Voyager 1 swiveled its camera and captured the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ – an image of Earth from six billion kilometers away. It was a mirror held up to our planet – home of water, life, and minds. A reminder that we share something precious and rare. But how rare, exactly? The only life? The only minds?

For the last half-century, small groups of scientists have listened valiantly for signs of life in the vast silence. But for government, academia, and industry, cosmic questions are astronomically far down the list of priorities. And that lengthens the odds of finding answers. It is hard enough to comb the Universe from the edge of the Milky Way; harder still from the edge of the public consciousness.


Yet millions are inspired by these ideas, whether they meet them in science or science fiction. Because the biggest questions of our existence are at stake. Are we the Universe’s only child – our thoughts its only thoughts? Or do we have cosmic siblings – an interstellar family of intelligence? As Arthur C. Clarke said, “In either case the idea is quite staggering.”

That means the search for life is the ultimate ‘win-win’ endeavor. All we have to do is take part. Today we have search tools far surpassing those of previous generations. Telescopes can pick out planets across thousands of light years. The magic of Moore’s law lets our computers sift data orders of magnitude faster than older mainframes – and ever quicker each year.

These tools are now reaping a harvest of discoveries. In the last few years, astronomers and the Kepler Mission have discovered thousands of planets beyond our solar system. It now appears that most stars host a planetary system. Many of them have a planet similar in size to our own, basking in the ‘habitable zone’ where the temperature permits liquid water. There are likely billions of earth-like worlds in our galaxy alone. And with instruments now or soon available, we have a chance of finding out if any of these planets are true Pale Blue Dots – home to water, life, even minds.

There has never been a better moment for a large-scale international effort to find life in the Universe. As a civilization, we owe it to ourselves to commit time, resources, and passion to this quest.

But as well as a call to action, this is a call to thought. When we find the nearest exo-Earth, should we send a probe? Do we try to make contact with advanced civilizations? Who decides? Individuals, institutions, corporations, or states? Or can we as species – as a planet – think together?

Three years ago, Voyager 1 broke the sun’s embrace and entered interstellar space. The 20th century will be remembered for our travels within the solar system. With cooperation and commitment, the present century will be the time when we graduate to the galactic scale, seek other forms of life, and so know more deeply who we are.

But with current rocket propulsion technology, it would take tens or hundreds of millennia to reach our neighboring star system, Alpha Centauri. The stars, it seems, have set strict bounds on human destiny. Until now. 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, and beam home images of possible planets, as well as other scientific data such as analysis of magnetic fields.

Breakthrough Starshot aims to demonstrate proof of concept for ultra-fast light-driven nanocrafts, and lay the foundations for a first launch to Alpha Centauri within the next generation. Along the way, the project could generate important supplementary benefits to astronomy, including solar system exploration and detection of Earth-crossing asteroids.


January 2016 also saw ‘first light’ for Breakthrough Listen, with observations marking the start of the 10-year effort announced in July 2015 at London’s Royal Society by Yuri Milner, Stephen Hawking, Lord Martin Rees, Ann Druyan, and Frank Drake. Hundreds of hours of observations have taken place using the Green Bank Radio Telescope in West Virginia and Lick Observatory’s Automated Planet Finder in Mt. Hamilton, California.

Breakthrough Listen is the largest ever scientific research program aimed at finding evidence of civilizations beyond Earth. The scope and power of the search are on an unprecedented scale: The program includes a survey of the 1,000,000 closest stars to Earth. It scans the center of our galaxy and the entire galactic plane. Beyond the Milky Way, it listens for messages from the 100 closest galaxies to ours.

The instruments used are among the world’s most powerful. They are 50 times more sensitive than existing telescopes dedicated to the search for intelligence.

The radio surveys cover 10 times more of the sky than previous programs. They also cover at least 5 times more of the radio spectrum – and do it 100 times faster. They are sensitive enough to hear a common aircraft radar transmitting to us from any of the 1000 nearest stars.

They are also carrying out the deepest and broadest ever search for optical laser transmissions. These spectroscopic searches are 1000 times more effective at finding laser signals than ordinary visible light surveys. They could detect a 100 watt laser (the energy of a normal household bulb) from 25 trillion miles away.

Breakthrough Listen is releasing the first batch of data for public access at the Breakthrough Initiatives website. Data from the Green Bank Telescope is also available to users of UC Berkeley’s SETI@home software.

Observations made so far by Breakthrough Listen include most of the stars within 16 light years of Earth (including stars such as 51 Pegasi that are known to host extra-solar planets), and a sample of stars between 16 and 160 light years away. This included nearby sun-like and giant stars as well as numerous binary stars. The search also targeted around 40 of the nearest spiral galaxies, including members of the Maffei Group in the direction of the constellation Cassiopeia. Stars within 16 light years accessible only from the Southern Hemisphere, such as Alpha Centauri, will be observed by the end of the year with the Parkes Telescope.

This year’s Observation Plan for all three telescopes has been published and can be found at breakthroughinitiatives.org/OpenDataSearch

The Daily Galaxy via breakthroughinitiatives.org


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