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It seems like the timeworn plot to a science fiction movie: a secretive group of billionaires, scientists, financiers, and philanthropists meet to draft plans for the world’s first ever interstellar spacecraft. The only problem is: this is no some cheap sci-fi flick.  This is real life…it’s literally happening, as you are reading this, in the form of Yuri and Julia Milner’s “BreakthroughStarshot” program, established in April,  last year. It is included in the category of the “BreakthroughInitiatives,” an ambitious, well-supported and well-funded scientific research into the broad questions.  Are we lone motes of intelligence in a horrible sea of loneliness, or are there other minds out there waiting to make contact with ours?  Will we ever reach other worlds?  And can human beings act in order to make contact with our fellow minds in the universe?

Add Artist’s interpretation of Proxima b. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

 And quietly, with the support and efforts  of some of the world’s profound and most innovative minds—Stephen Hawking and Mark Zuckerberg, to name just a few—the Breakthrough Starshot program is enrolling the architecture for what some people are addressing as  “the Big Jump:” mankind’s first boundless leap across the space that splits us from stars nearest to us.

Up to now, the plan is in its beginning.  There are some technological obstacles to overcome, but with some time, money, and lot of research, we can be sure that these won’t prove impossible. The idea is the  simplest: build a “StarChip”—a gram-scale nano craft (hardly the size of a postage stamp) prepared with contracted electronics, cameras, computers and power sources—and hitch it to a lightweight “lightsail.” Then use a laser array, or a “light beamer,” to speed up the entire device to about 20 percent to that speed of light.

That will put you close to Proxima b in about 20 years from launch.  Enthusiastically, the team is positively hoping for an “arrive-by” date of 2060; of course, this is all dependent on the progress of technology, which involves everything from contracted electronics and computers, lasers, battery technology, materials science, and very long-distance communications.


Meanwhile, the Breakthrough Starshot team is also progressing on other fronts.  It is not enough to just build an interstellar spacecraft; ideally, you need to know where to send the spacecraft. And that is why they’ve lately inked a deal with the European Southern Observatory to assemble the Very Large Telescope (VLT) with some powerful equipment to scan the Alpha Centauri system for being potentially habitable—if not then at least interesting—planets.  Observations are likely to begin in 2019.

It was the European Space Observatory that discovered Proxima b last year, a declaration that vaccinated a great deal of interest into the Starshot team; the planet is almost as massive as Earth but is likely tidally sealed in a close orbit around its red dwarf primary.  Given the tendency to UV flaring of stars like Proxima Centuari—especially in the beginning of life—there are serious questions whether a planet is habitable or not?.

These questions are the reasons why the team wants to add the VLT to search for planets in the Alpha Centauri double-star system.  Advance Initiatives will pay to upgrade the telescope to help make this search possible; they also want to install an equipment module built by Kampf Telescope Optics on the VISIR (VLT Imager and Spectrometer for mid-Infrared), which will be using adaptive optics to boost the telescope’s ability to differentiate planetary signatures from the glare of their respective stars.  A coronagraph (used to block stellar light), mutually developed by the University of Liège and Uppsala University, will also be equipped to further boost the observatory’s ability to detect the tiny fragments of planetary light.

The task for Breakthrough Starshot, in the upcoming decades, is to carefully examine the Alpha Centauri system while the technology for the “StarChip” nano craft is in progress. Hopefully, by the time the spacecraft are all set, the team will have gathered an operative map of our neighboring planetary system, and will likely be able to choose a promising target and map their probes for an interesting flight plan decades in advance.


This is all comforting news for those who are wishing for the time when mankind will be finally able to reach out and touch the stars.  Quiet progress is being made by the Breakthrough Starshot program already, and we can hopefully expect further improvements in the many scientific and engineering disciplines the project incorporates.

We’ve finished the first, casual exploration of our Solar System, and Yes, there’s still much more to discover, our species—with typical restlessness and impatience—looks to discover more and more horizons.  The Big Jump is the next rational step; we want to see what’s past that mountain range, and we are racing to do everything it takes to scale its loftiest peak and explore the undiscovered regions it hides from our sight.

Of course, getting there—really, physically marching out onto the territory of the planet of an alien sun—is a great desire, and some ofourgreatest minds ever have worked on the potent problem of how to buildpracticalstarships. Their ideas are fascinating and even reasonable; some less so.  Truthfully, our technology now is centuries away and at least one step close to the Kardashev scale to send human beings even to nearby Proxima b.  But that’s an approximation that recks very little of the infamous variable of human cleverness; there is just no idea what stunning new technologies we might develop in the upcoming decades.

For the moment, we’ll have to satisfy ourselves with tiny probes and—if we get lucky—maybe a few gritty images of distant planets, patched together with great effort from a pale signal trickling about 4 light-years away.
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