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It’s finally happening. We’re going to send a probe mission to another star system.

In a live press announcement today at 9 am PSTStephen Hawking, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner will announce their partnership in a $100 million hunt for alien life that will rely on a fleet of thousands of postage stamp-sized spacecraft to explore the universe. It’s called Breakthrough Starshot, and the tiny craft will rely on light sails to reach Alpha Centauri, our nearest astronomical neighbor, in about twenty years. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is also on board with the idea, agreeing to contribute funding  and resources to the project.

Why Alpha Centauri? Obviously, it’s the closest possible extrasolar destination. However, astronomers also believe that an Earth-like planet could exist within the “habitable zones” of Alpha Centauri. It’s a mere 25 trillion miles (or 4.37 light-years) away. Using conventional technology, the nanocrafts would take 30,000 years to arrive, but the light-propelled craft should be able to fly at about 20% the speed of light. This will make them over a thousand times faster than anything humans have ever flown before.

“Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever,” Hawking said in a statement. “Sooner or later, we must look to the stars. Breakthrough Starshot is a very exciting first step on that journey.”

Each nanocraft would carry cameras, photon thrusters, power supplies, navigation and communication equipment, and the newly engineered “lightsail,” which would propel each probe. If a single nanocraft makes it to Alpha Centauri after a 20-year journey, it would take an additional four years to transmit that information back to Earth.

Pete Worden, former director of NASA AMES Research Center, will lead the program, along with a committee of world-class scientists and engineers, team officials said.

The program faces significant research and engineering challenges, and is expected to take a few years to complete. However, the proposed design has been created around technology that is either already available or likely to be attainable in the near future, according to the Breakthrough Starshot team.

We, as a species, are taking our first steps outside our little bubble of atmosphere into the universe beyond. It’s an exciting time to be alive.

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