The tiny robotic spacecraft that Stephen Hawking and his colleagues plan to send between the stars could also revolutionize the hunt for alien life in Earth's own solar system. Hawking, several other scientists and billionaire investor Yuri Milner announced Breakthrough Starshot, a $100 million initiative to develop the technology required to accelerate postage-stamp-size, sail-equipped "nanocraft" to 20 percent the speed of light using powerful ground-based lasers. The Starshot team hopes flotillas of such miniprobes eventually explore Alpha Centauri and other nearby star systems, studying the planets in those systems up close and searching for signs of life. But the nanocraft will first cut their teeth much closer to home.
Avi Loeb, who chairs Harvard University's astronomy department and the Breakthrough Starshot advisory committee, said during a news conference. Loeb cited Saturn's moon Enceladus, which harbors an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy shell, as a good target for Starshot probes. Geysers erupt continuously from Enceladus' south polar region, blasting material from the hidden ocean far out into space. "One can imagine flying such a small spacecraft through the plume and detecting molecules that might be indicative of life, fingerprints of life," Loeb said.
A laser-blasted nanoprobe traveling at 20 percent the speed of light would reach Pluto in just three days!
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