Did you ever expect theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and social media mogul Mark Zuckerberg to be mentioned in the same sentence? Well, I just did exactly that, so deal with it. I’m not the only one, though – turns out these two brilliant minds are pairing up with tech billionaire Yuri Milner in one of the largest space exploration ventures since we first took to the stars. The initiative, known as the Breakthrough Starshot Project (which I still insist they should have called Spacebook) is scientifically amazing and unbelievably ambitious – a $100m program that has two aims – to create technology which could massively increase the possible speed of interstellar travel, and also to explore our neighbouring Alpha Centauri system.
In order to do this, they need to shrink a bunch of computer components, a camera, navigational system and power supply, mount them onto a nanocraft frame, which will be about the size of a postage stamp - and create a light-sail for the nanocraft. This will obviously be repeated to make an innumberable amount of these crafts. This payload of intelligent machines will then be mounted into a larger shuttle, before the entire spacecraft is launched out of orbit. The multitude of small crafts will then deploy, using an advanced light-beamer mounted on the surface of the Earth to travel at a quarter of lightspeed toward the Alpha Centauri system.
This should mean that the nanocraft should arrive to the system within 20 years, and then explore the system, sending back scientific data and photographic images of planets within the system. To put the change in time into perspective – it usually takes 9 months to travel to Mars. With these things? Half an hour. To get to Pluto, it takes almost 10 years. StarShot’s nanocraft will be able to cover that distance to three days.
“It usually takes 9 months to travel to Mars. With these things? Half an hour. To get to Pluto, it takes almost 10 years. StarShot’s nanocraft will be able to cover that distance in three days”
The list of challenges they face in order to complete all of this and make it a plausible (and affordable) project is astronomical – pun intended – and it will likely be years before the construction of these machines could even possibly be considered. It seems that American, Russian and European space agencies are all getting involved, and Hawking has recently begun discussions with India to join with the project, after their successes with the Mars Orbiter mission. It seems the physicist can see the possibilities that uniting the globe’s experts on space together on one central mission. I mean, there’ll come a time where this planet may become overpopulated, and we may need to find others – or we may discover extraterrestrial life - which could result in a peaceful situation, or one a bit like… you know, every other situation we seem to have in films and games where we find aliens. You know, pointing guns at each other. Either way, this possibility is fantastic, and to see such an achievement occurring within our lifetime is amazing.
Whilst it’s a scientific marvel, it’s more than a bit concerning that Facebook, the company with the most control behind social media – and therefore, hugely invested in public opinion and data – is putting its metaphorical fingers into so many metaphorical pies, especially one so exotic as this? We joke on about social media such as Facebook and Twitter running our lives, but is this a genuine attempt at it having more control over it than the targeted advertising we experience?
“American, Russian and European space agencies are all getting involved, and Hawking has recently begun discussions with India to join with the project”
It makes sense, I suppose – as a company that holds its control through data and makes its money through data and advertising, becoming involved in such a high-profile project wholly interested in scientific data is a clear-cut move for multimillion dollar tech firms. For a group which already holds such massive control over government action – lobbying for legislation, disabling access to data, and holding complete control over what people can and cannot know – I mean, hell, one of the biggest tech firms out there refused to allow the FBI access to their data and phones until a third party assisted them!
It’s odd that such a company feels it knows best how to spend unbelievable amounts of cash in what it believes is best for humanity. And I don’t know, isn’t that we have governments for? I mean, they don’t exactly do a better job, but for a company such as this to take such a centre stage in the advancement of society may hint toward the future of internet-based corporations such as this in the future?