Professor Stephen Hawking has launched a project to propel tiny spacecraft 25 trillion miles into space using lasers.

Breakthrough Starshot, the brainchild of Russian investor and philanthropist Yuri Milner, and backed by Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, aims to test whether laser beams can send nano-scale spacecraft at up to 100 million miles per hour to Alpha Centauri, our nearest star system.

Part of the Breakthrough Initiative’s broader search for extra-terrestrial life, Professor Hawking said at the launch in February: “It’s time to commit to finding the answer to search for life beyond Earth.”

How would it work?

‘Nanocrafts’ are gram-scale robotic spacecrafts that contain two main parts. The first is a StarChip – a tiny electronic wafer, which could carry navigation and communication equipment, power supply, cameras and photon thrusters. This would constitute a “fully functional space probe”.

The second component is the light sails. No more than “a few hundred atoms thick”, these sails are propelled by lasers at speeds of up to 100 million miles an hour.

This animation from the project outlines how such a system could work.

What happens next?

Alpha Centauri is 25 trillion miles from Earth, and with today’s spacecrafts, it would take 30,000 years to get there. Breakthrough Starshot is hoping to change that.

The project has designated $100m to a research and engineering phase, which is expected to last several years.

Following this research phase, the initiative hopes to one day launch a mission to Alpha Centauri. A mothership would be launched carrying thousands of these nanocrafts, which would be released and propelled by a ground-based light beamer. These crafts could then take images and capture other data to transmit back to earth as they travel through space.

The system does present significant engineering challenges and at the moment is nothing more than a theory. However, the project certainly offers a glimpse into the future of space exploration.