Stephen Hawking and a Russian billionaire want to send iPhone-size robots to a star 25 trillion miles away


Alpha Centauri.

ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2 Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin

A wide-field view of the sky around the bright star Alpha Centauri.

Famed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner just announced a mysterious new space exploration initiative called "Breakthrough Starshot" at 12 p.m. ET today.

They were joined for the announcement at One World Trade Center in New York by famed physicist Freeman Dyson, producer Ann Druyan (who cowrote Carl Sagan's science series, "Cosmos"), astronaut Mae Jemison (who currently leads the 100 Year Starship initiative), and Pete Worden (who led NASA's Ames Research Center until last year).

"Life in the universe does not only mean extraterrestrial life ... it means us," Milner told a crowd on top of One World Trade Center in New York City. "Can we reach the stars? Can we do it in our lifetimes?"

Starshot aims to explore the star Alpha Centauri, which is some 4.37 light-years (25 trillion miles) away. According to Dennis Overbye at the New York Times, the project will use small robots that are roughly the size of an iPhone.

Even before the official announcement, there were some strong clues suggesting what it might be about.


Hawking has said in the past that humanity needs to colonize space if we are going to survive as a species long term. And as points out, April 12 is the 55th anniversary of human spaceflight. (The first man in space was cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin - who Milner has said he was named after.)

Milner has spent big money on science initiatives before, saying he wants to celebrate "intellectual achievement" in the same way we celebrate artistic and athletic prowess.

The Russian billionaire philanthropist has also collaborated with Hawking in the past. In July 2015, the two announced a $100 million plan, called "Breakthrough Listen," to search the stars for intelligent extraterrestrial life.

Milner's interest in science runs deep. He was working on a PhD in physics before becoming a Silicon Valley investor. He earned his fortune investing in companies like Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, and Groupon, and now funds some of the biggest science prizes out there, including the Breakthrough Prize, which Mark Zuckerberg also supports.

The live video feed of the announcement (below) began at 12 p.m. ET. Stay tuned.


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