Remember those glow-in-the-dark stars, moons and planets you could stick onto your bedroom ceiling? I do—I used to fall asleep below them, dreaming of outer space and galaxies filled with strange planets and even stranger life-forms. I’ve always been fascinated by astronomy, and movies like The Fifth Element and the Star Wars series left me thirsting to see deep space travel become a reality. But when I consider just how far even a single light-year is (try to imagine nearly six trillion miles of mostly empty space!), my hopes are dashed. How could any man-made spacecraft travel so far in a reasonable time?

Introducing Breakthrough Starshot, a research program developed by Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner along with Stephen Hawking and other scientists. The program is designed to send lightweight spacecraft to Alpha Centauri, our nearest star system, to collect primary data about it for the first time in human history. The system consists of two stars and a red dwarf, and lies “only” 4.37 light-years away. To cross this incredible distance—over 26 trillion miles—the spacecraft must travel at a reasonable fraction of the speed of light or it would take thousands of years to reach our celestial neighbor.

The solution lies in the evolving technology of the nanocraft: a one-gram computer chip equipped with cameras and other hardware attached to a laser sail, a special fabric that can withstand extreme temperatures. Thousands of these spacecraft would be launched into space. An arrangement of lasers nearly a mile across would then shoot powerful beams from Earth at the sails to heat them up, causing them to propel toward Alpha Centauri at about 20 percent the speed of light. (Check out a simulation of the project here!)

It’ll still take nearly 20 years for the nanocraft to reach Alpha Centauri, but once they do, they’ll take pictures and collect other indispensible data about the star system. Some scientists even believe that planets might exist somewhere in the system!

If the program sounds too good to be true, that’s because right now, it is. Achieving the project would cost billions of dollars, and it is predicted to take 20 more years of research and development before the launch even becomes a possibility.

But for those science fiction fans out there like me, we’ll hold our breath in the hope that Breakthrough Starshot becomes a reality, and that many of the mysteries of Alpha Centauri are solved. If Breakthrough Starshot is a success, just imagine where else we could explore!

Did You Know?

Engineers have developed solar roadways, roads paved in solar panels. The roads are designed to generate solar energy, charge electric cars and make driving safer—they contain LED lights for road signs as well as heating elements to melt snow and ice. While some doubt its durability and cost efficiency, others hope that solar roadways might eventually replace traditional pavement.

Image credit: ESO/DSS 2