Could the Starshot Probes Spot Alien Life Near Alpha Centauri?

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On Tuesday, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and legendary astrophysicist Stephen Hawking announced an ambitious space-exploration program to send a fleet of tiny probes to neighboring star Alpha Centauri.

The $100 million program, called Breakthrough Starshot, will seek to develop a type of spacecraft called a Starchip with a laser-powered sail that could travel the 4.3 light-years to Alpha Centauri in just 20 years.

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Is there life out there? Not only would the feat itself be incredible, it could help answer one of humanity's most profound questions: whether or not we're alone in the universe. 

The fleet of Starchips would fly past Alpha Centauri at about 20% the speed of light, but they'd be able to snap photos and take data from the planets surrounding the star. 

Milner (left) and HawkingSource: Bebeto Matthews/AP
Milner (left) and Hawking  Bebeto Matthews/AP

What should we do if we discover life around Alpha Centauri? "We should hope that they don't find us," Hawking said at the press conference.

Pete Worden, Starshot's executive director, said the tiny spacecraft could even be used to more efficiently explore the moons, planets and asteroids in our own solar system. It took us over 11 years to send the New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto. Theoretically, these laser-powered spacecraft could get there much faster. 

Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

Maybe then we could finally send a probe to the moons Europa and Enceladus, both of which scientists suspect may harbor life.

This isn't the first time a laser-powered spacecraft like this has been proposed. But with a strong financial backing, maybe it will really get off the ground, and we can start searching for signs of life.