Perhaps the most exciting recent development in the field of space exploration has been the Breakthrough Initiatives program, spearheaded by Stephen Hawking and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner.
The program, founded in 2015, aims to search for extraterrestrial intelligence in the far reaches of space, using three key initiatives; Listen, Message, and Starshot. Also partially funded by Mark Zuckerberg, the program is the first of its kind to take significant steps to find and contact alien life in the Milky Way galaxy and beyond.
The Breakthrough Listen Initiative will monitor the skies for extraterrestrial radio activity by surveying the one million stars closest to Earth, as well as listening for messages from the one hundred closest galaxies. The plan is to use stronger, more sensitive telescopes than have ever been used before, survey a much larger section of the sky than others have in the past, and cover a much larger radio spectrum than has previously been attempted.
In addition to radio signals, the initiative also hopes to search for optical laser transmissions. The project is expected to last ten years and has been estimated to cost approximately $100 million.
Breakthrough Message is the initiative aimed at communicating with extraterrestrial life, should any be found. The program has suggested that, while there is no current plan to send these messages, they “hope to encourage debate about how and what to communicate with possible intelligent beings beyond Earth”.
The tricky part is coming up with a message which is both representative of all human beings and would be understood by alien life, which is why Message is taking the form of an international competition. Open to everyone who wishes to participate, $1 million will be divided among those who come up with the best messages.
Starshot is by far the most ambitious of the initiatives, as its goal is to send swarms of probes to neighboring star systems, employing a fleet of solar-sail spacecraft.
The mission presents a slew of interesting, but very tricky, problems to overcome. The primary issue designers will face is the fact that Alpha Centauri is 41.3 trillion kilometers from Earth, which would take tens of thousands of years at the speed of our current technology.
The program hopes to tackle this problem by using light-powered spacecraft at 20% the speed of light speed, which is 60,000 km/s (the current record is 70 km/s set by Helios II in 1976). They hope to use ground-based light beamers to push lightweight, microchip-sized nanocrafts up to 160 million kilometers per hour, which would allow the probes to reach Alpha Centauri in roughly 20 years.
Other challenges the project may face include getting past the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud without the probes being damaged, figuring out the engineering and design of the gram-sized StarChips, and making the long-term use of the light beamers sustainable.
It is hoped, that in addition to the goals of Breakthrough Initiatives, the project will inspire new methods and technologies to benefit other scientific fields, both astronomical and otherwise.
These initiatives have been hailed by some as groundbreaking and a noble pursuit, while other have brought into question the practicality and feasibility of the program. No matter which opinion you hold, one thing is for sure, it will be interesting to see where the project goes, and more importantly, where it will take us in the future.
Check out Futurism’s great infographic about Breakthrough Initiatives below.