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Fleet of nanocraft to detect alien civilizations in nearest star system

A futuristic concept art of a giant spaceship (

British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once famously said that “two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” But it seems that humans, standing on the shores of the cosmic ocean, are fond of the latter terrifying possibility and are more eager to embrace the idea that they are not the sole intelligent beings across the cosmos.

The SETI project, among other numerous efforts to refute our cosmic solitude, launched over half a century ago to eavesdrop the faintest radio signals transmitted from the supposed alien civilizations from deep space. Though nothing has been overheard during the past decades, scientists, now far from being disappointed, are determined to send interstellar fact-finding probes to find alien life forms beyond our solar system.

Russian Internet entrepreneur and space enthusiast billionaire Yuri Milner, the founder and funder of the Breakthrough Initiatives, together with famed British cosmologist Stephen Hawking announced on Tuesday one of the most ambitious projects ever to detect extraterrestrial intelligence in the vicinity of the Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to our solar system at about 4.37 light years.

The Breakthrough Starshot is simple at the first glance. Thousands of ultra-light wafer-size chips attached to super-thin light sails will be launched to space by a mothership. The tiny probes will then be pushed towards the star system by powerful laser beams shot from the Earth, which make the craft accelerate up to 20 percent the speed of light, some 60,000 kilometers (37,000 miles) per second.

It will take some 20 years for the fleet to reach the star system and begin taking images of its planets and then send them back home, which takes another four years. It would take a conventionally propelled probe about 30,000 years to make such a voyage, which is far beyond humans’ brief lifetimes.

“The limit that confronts us now is the great void between us and the stars, but now we can transcend it,” said Hawking during a news conference on Tuesday at the One World Observatory in New York City.

“With light beams, light sails and the lightest spacecraft ever built, we can launch a mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation. Today, we commit to this next great leap into the cosmos. Because we are human, and our nature is to fly," he added.

Milner has invested $100 million in this project to examine the possibility of sending such a fleet of “nanocraft” to an interstellar journey.

“Breakthrough Starshot is based on technology either available or likely to be available in the near future,” Milner said in a statement, adding, “The human story is one of great leaps. Fifty-five years ago today, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. Today, we are preparing for the next great leap — to the stars.”

Internet investor and science philanthropist Yuri Milner holds up a Star Chip with renowned cosmologist Professor Stephen Hawking during a press conference at One World Observatory in New York on April 12, 2016 to announce the Breakthrough Starshot focusing on searching for life in the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri. (AFP)

The third member of Breakthrough Starshot’s board of directors is Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook.

On July last year, Milner and Hawking unveiled another $100-million project, called Breakthrough Listen, to find signals that might be being broadcast by alien civilizations across the galaxy.

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