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Small is beautiful

Letters


The sheer ingenuity of Yuri Milner’s latest search for extraterrestrial intelligence commands the attention of anyone in Bahrain who has looked up at the night sky and wondered if we are alone. The fact that he has committed $100 million of his own money to the search means that it might actually expand the boundaries of human knowledge.

Milner is the Russian-born technology billionaire best known, until today, for endowing the world’s richest science prizes. He now plans to send nanoscale spaceships to Alpha Centauri. The nearest star to Earth apart from the Sun is 25 trillion miles away, but no matter. Milner intends to dispatch his “spacechips” there so fast that they will be able to send back information on their search for alien life-forms within the lifetimes of most people alive today.

His chosen propulsion method is a high-powered laser harnessed by a “solar sail” attached to each one of several hundred of his tiny robot probes. 

The idea is that the laser will be able to accelerate them swiftly to 20 per cent of the speed of light, which is 134 million miles an hour, or more than 1,000 times faster than any other manmade object has travelled before. That is fast enough to get to Alpha Centauri’s three-star cluster and any planets in the vicinity in 20 years, compared with 30,000 years at conventional space probe speeds.

There is, in technical terms, some way to go. The feasibility of shrinking spacecraft to the size of a fingernail and powering them with an earth-based laser has yet to be proved. 

Even assuming that the Breakthrough Starshot project eventually blasts off and reaches its planned top speed, it may not find evidence of life. 

But its audacity and thirst for knowledge are little short of inspirational. Its refusal to wait for backing from an earth-bound government is a useful reminder that bureaucrats are not explorers.

We are on the cusp of a new golden age of space exploration, an age in which the next great leaps for humankind are funded not by American taxpayers but maverick tech tycoons reared on Star Trek and the Apollo moonshots.

While Milner (net worth BD2.2 billion) goes interstellar, Elon Musk, of SpaceX and Tesla Motors (BD9bn), wants to send himself to Mars with the help of re-usable rockets. Jeff Bezos, of Amazon (BD33bn), wants to beat him to it.

Theirs is a generation that came of age as the cold-war space race fizzled out. Many of those who have made fortunes in the tech boom regret that its legacy is not more exciting or uplifting. As Peter Thiel, a founder of PayPal, has put it in a sidelong reference to Twitter: “They promised us flying cars and we got 140 characters.” 

The new space racers are now compensating in the most direct and spectacular ways imaginable, putting billions earned in software into grand experiments in outer space.

If  Milner’s project moves off the drawing board, it will need cheap space launches to hoist his nanostarships into orbit. Musk hopes to oblige. 

Last weekend SpaceX successfully landed a stage-one rocket booster on a barge in the Atlantic after it had sent a supply capsule to the International Space Station. 

The booster landed upright in crosswinds of 50mph and can now be re-used, potentially cutting future launch costs by a factor of 100. It was “another step to the stars”, Musk said, and might just be right.

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