I always love to see people excited about exploring new technologies and new scientific fields. This has been especially true of the Breakthrough Initiatives program funded by philanthropist Yuri Milner, and now the team have announced a very exciting new project.

We are going to send probes to other solar systems!

Recently it was announced that the Breakthrough Initiatives is beginning work on Project Starshot, whose goal is exactly that. They will be spending $100 million dollars developing high speed nanoprobes propelled by energetic laser pulses.

Each probe will weigh one gram, and contain the latest in miniature electronics, including solar power supply and sensors. (One just has to look at personal computers to see how this is possible - in front of me on my desk I have a microprocessor board the size of my thumb that has more computing power than my full desktop computer had twenty years ago. So when Starshot is ready to launch ten or twenty years from now, these one gram nanoprobes will likely be nearly as powerful as modern supercomputers!)

The probes will be attached to a large, lightweight reflective sail that will be deployed once they are launched into space. From the surface of the Earth, a 100 gigawatt laser array will then send light pulses into this solar sail and accelerate the probes up to high speed. (In principle this could get arbitrarily close to the speed of light, but in practice the accuracy of the laser would only allow a limited number of pulses to be used).

Using this method it is expected that the nanoprobes could travel fast enough to reach neighbouring stars and exoplanets in only a few decades, which is much faster than any other space faring probes we have. (Personally I have doubts about whether the probes could ever efficiently return information to the Earth, but that is an issue for future scientists to worry about. )

And best of all, they have promised to be open and transparent with all of their research. All the countries of the world, and all of the scientists who work in these fields, will all have equal access to this new technology. It is quite possible that the first contact with other solar systems will be through an open source initiative.

To be honest, this project will be difficult and quite likely will not provide us with any useful information on other worlds. At the very least it is unlikely to yield results in our lifetimes. However we must always look to the future, and move human knowledge forward into the unknown. 

And thanks to a wealthy philanthropist and a lot of dreamers, we just might see extra-solar exploration by the end of the century. It is truly a great time to be alive!