Shoot for the stars

On Tuesday, English physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg announced they’re investing billions of dollars to send a fleet of robot spacecraft to Alpha Centuri, the nearest star system.

These robots are tiny — think Transformers. Not the ones from the movies, but the tiny action figures you used to play with in your childhood basement.

Imagine having one of those little guys make a journey into space that’s 4.37 light-years away.

Aside from going into uncharted territory, actually getting to the Alpha Centuri is a far-fetched dream.

It took NASA 9.5 years to get to Pluto, which is 4.67 billion miles from Earth. Alpha Centuri is more than 25.6 trillion miles away — talk about a star trek.

It’s going to take a lot of baby steps and, according to Hawking, about a decade to get there.

First off, a big rocket is going to shoot into the universe full of these little mini robots. Then, once in orbit, the robots will be released and jetted off into the universe by super cool lasers beaming up from earth.

The diagrams and pictures of these laser beams closely resemble graphics from past Star Wars films.

“With light beams, light sails and the lightest spacecraft ever built, we can launch a mission to Alpha Centuri within the generation,” Hawking said in an announcement.

As long as everything’s light enough to stay afloat, from a totally non-scientific point of view, this expedition sounds like it’ll go off without a hitch.

But, and there’s always a “but,” the plans are considered laughable by many experts in the field.

According to Pete Worden, a former NASA director, there are about 20 major “ifs” that go into the equation as well — mainly the lasers and the tiny sails that are supposed to propel the little robots during interstellar travel.

Although I think it’s a lofty goal, it’s good that these Silicon Valley intellects and independently wealthy entrepreneurs are undertaking this type of project.

Recently, the Obama administration announced in the federal budget cutting NASA’s spending in the upcoming fiscal year, which would drastically decrease funding for space 
exploration.

Although the United States remains cosmically curious, it is evident there are more close-to-home projects to fund like global warming, education and healthcare.

For these tech and scientific super-giants, the only thing to do after conquering the world is to keep reaching further.

Though the project might sound like it was spawned by a bunch of dudes getting high in a basement talking about “going to space,” there might actually be something achievable here.

If not, a few billion dollars is nothing but a drop in the ocean — and a palpable hit to the ego — for them.

“How do we transcend these limits?” Hawking said. “With our minds and with our machines.”

Honestly, if anyone can do it, he can.

This article was originally published as a column for the Indiana Daily Student on 14 April 2016.

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