Firing thousands of tiny spacecraft traveling 20 percent of the speed of light to Alpha Centauri using a massive laser beam is an astounding mission proposal. But Yuri Milner’s latest privately funded science initiative also ventures into some new frontiers for philanthropy.
Tech billionaire Milner’s new Breakthrough Starshot initiative is a $100 million research and engineering project to prove that we could launch interstellar probes within a generation, boasting board members Mark Zuckerberg and Stephen Hawking and a prestigious team of advisers and researchers. The goal is so far out that even with the very real funding and notable participants, the whole project feels kind of dreamlike.
Some details of the proposal make this kind of private research funding seem so audacious—Harvard astrophysicist and Starshot advisory board chair Avi Loeb described the challenge of the “giggle factor.”
While cautioning that such a mission would require tremendous advances, Milner, Hawking, Freeman Dyson, and other respected voices in space exploration pitched the project's sound science to the press Tuesday.
The prospect of interstellar space exploration has always been stuck in the realm of fiction, mostly because we just can’t go fast enough to cover the distances, and we haven’t made a major breakthrough in propulsion since liquid-fueled rockets. Making the trip to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system at 4.37 light years away, would take us 30,000 years to reach in our fastest spacecraft.
But there’s another way you could do it, using a concept called a “lightsail.” You’d take a wafer of electronics about size of a stamp, attach a sheet of ultra-thin material to it that acts like a sail, and then fire a 100-gigawatt array of lasers from the ground to the sail to propel the tiny craft at 100 million miles per hour. At that speed, the probe, of which you’d launch thousands, could get to Alpha Centauri in 20 years and send back data in four more. It’s theoretically possible, and it’s the best shot experts on the subject say we currently have at venturing to other stars.
This is the kind of highly speculative endeavor that has become Milner’s calling card. The $100 million starting commitment is the largest lump sum ever devoted purely to interstellar flight, and it’s the latest in a string of increasingly wild-eyed science initiatives he’s been hatching in the past few years. Last year, Breakthrough Listen became the largest research program aimed at finding evidence of civilizations beyond Earth, also funded with $100 million. Before that, Milner and peers like Hawking, Zuckerberg, Jack Ma and Anne Wojcicki established a suite of the world’s richest science awards.
The guy is determined, and in a very short period of time, has truly raised the bar when it comes to ultra-wealthy individuals funding scientific research. Here’s why this new one is so important from a philanthropic standpoint:
The timeframe is extremely long, far beyond the scale of most philanthropic projects.
We’ve noted before that the remarkable thing about Milner’s philanthropy is not its dollar amounts, although he does deal in large sums, but the timelines in which he is comfortable operating. Risk is something philanthropy is obsessed with, with constant talk about “big bets” and “high-risk, high-reward.” But all too often, philanthropy only gets about as wild and crazy as a two-year project grant—oh, and don’t forget the quarterly reports on deliverables, please.
The Breakthrough Listen program to detect life beyond Earth, started out as a 10-year commitment. But Milner even suggested that he has no intention of cutting off funding, even without anything to show. He told Time: “I’ll fund it for another 10 years. This thing can go on forever. It’s our responsibility as human beings to keep looking for a signal.”
Similarly, Starshot is a long game. The $100 million is just for phase one, which only intends to demonstrate technological proof of concept, laying the foundation for a first launch within a generation. Milner thinks the first three phases—concept, prototype, complete system—will take 20 or 30 years (frankly, that seems pretty optimistic) and a budget of maybe $10 billion (same). It's the kind of scale historically contemplated by nations or groups of nations for megaprojects such as the Large Hadron Collider. So his initial commitment is actually relatively small compared to the full potential cost, but it pursues one specific goal that reaches well beyond his lifetime and his own wealth.
At the announcement, famed author and project adviser Ann Druyan had this take on the timeframe:
Science thinks on time scales of billions of years, and yet we live in a society which only thinks in terms of, generally, the balance sheet of the next quarter or the next election. And we haven’t been able to adapt internally, to internalize, to take to heart, what science is telling us, especially as the world’s scientists speak to us of impending climate change. So this kind of thinking that looks at a horizon that’s 35 years away, possibly 20, possibly 50, is exactly what’s called for now. Because it’s this kind of multi-generational enterprise that nets us such great results.
It seems like a big part of Milner's goal is to change the way we approach massive scientific questions. As the influence of philanthropy in general becomes more profound and ventures into more existential problems, learning how to operate at such scales is a crucial lesson, and this project is feeling out the way.
It’s a new twist on the new space race.
Back in 1961—when Milner’s mother named him after Yuri Gagarin, the first human to journey to outer space—leaving the planet was entirely the domain of nations. They were the only entities that could possibly manage the costs and workforce required to shoot rockets into space. Things have changed—private wealth has grown and technology has rapidly become less expensive.
As a result, private entities have entered a new space race, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, even several small startups.
But this initiative is not the same as SpaceX. It’s not a new entrepreneur competing for access to the stars. In fact, at the announcement Milner contrasted the program to the competitive nature of earlier missions.
“When I was born, we were in the middle of a space race, but today… we are launching a collaborative planetary endeavor. One world reaching out to the galaxy.”
It can only be successful by bringing together a lot of minds, and eventually, wallets. The first phase has a 24-member advisory committee, a roster of 13 scientists named so far, and will establish a research grant program to fund experts from all over to help overcome the set of key challenges. Like Breakthrough Listen, everything is open access and the public is invited to contribute.
So we’re talking about a privately funded, decentralized, open source mission to Alpha Centauri.
If the group realizes the full mission, it’s not Yuri Milner’s property, nor could it even be entirely funded by him. So in some sense, it’s traditional science philanthropy—nudging forward a larger area of research on an edgy subject—but on an abnormally large and ambitious scale.
Yes, it does prompt the same question— "Who the hell does this guy think he is?"— that surrounds any billionaire who wants to shoot things into space. But it’s not quite the same brand of space travel privatization we’re seeing elsewhere. The closest analog I can think of would be privately funded telescope projects. Like those projects, there would a huge amount of cooperation and several funding sources required to go beyond proof of concept. And that includes collaborating with nations.
In fact, one more thing worth noting about the initiative is that part of its explicit goal is to figure out policy implications. As space exploration gets crowded, there’s a lot of unclear territory as to how nations and non-state actors should function together.
As the Breakthrough team hashes out key questions—say, how would we gain clearance to power and safely fire a gigantic, high-powered laser beam into the sky, and then send tiny projectiles hurtling through space—they’ll have to navigate that territory.
Keep in mind, this is all quite hypothetical at this point, still a little dreamlike. But it’s a lot less so than it was before yesterday. And even if the project itself turns out to be a complete bust, Milner is sending us down some fascinating roads regarding how we think about and fund massive science projects.