To infinity and beyond: Inside the daring attempt to find a new Earth
A Russian philanthropist, an Israeli astronomer and Stephen Hawking are teaming up in search of aliens and a new home for humanity.
Avi Loeb remembers the day vividly. The Boston-based astronomy professor was on vacation at a goat farm in the mountains of Israel when he got the call. A Russian philanthropist was asking him a seemingly impossible question: Could Loeb find aliens ... and could he get a presentation ready in a matter of days?
Never one to shy away from a challenge, Loeb knew he needed to get online. The only place he could get connected to the internet was in the ramshackle office at the goat farm where they had a computer at the reception desk. The irony was not lost on him: here he was, the brainchild behind an audacious plan to meet aliens, and he was sitting in dirt staring at goats.
"I basically sat at 6 a.m. in the morning, working on this presentation, with my back to the wall of this office, looking at the goats that were just born the day before, and contemplating the first realistic plan to send a spacecraft to the nearest star," Loeb told From The Grapevine. "And I'm sure that the owner of that goat farm never imagined that this would happen."
A week later Loeb was at the Russian's house, PowerPoint in hand. Loeb's slides showed that it was possible to not only find aliens, but to indeed find a new planet for human civilization. The philanthropist was impressed and, shortly thereafter, announced the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative. He made Loeb the chairman of the project's advisory committee.
Together, they became the Lewis & Clark of interstellar travel.
Why does a Russian philanthropist want to find E.T.?
Yuri Milner, a venture capitalist and physicist, has been called one of the world's greatest leaders by Fortune magazine, and Time named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. He's an investor in Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Airbnb and Spotify. And he's behind the world's largest scientific awards, known as the Breakthrough Prize. Each winner receives $3 million in prize money. To date, he's given nearly $200 million to scientists.
And then he met Avi Loeb. The Israeli-born theoretical physicist is a graduate of Jerusalem's Hebrew University, a school that was founded by one of his heroes, Albert Einstein. Indeed, he followed Einstein's path to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. Like Einstein, Loeb prefers to take a long-tail view of our future.
Along with many scientists, Loeb knows that humans' time on Earth is finite. The sun will eventually boil the oceans to the point where we'll have to find a new home. Or there could be a catastrophic asteroid. It won't happen tomorrow, or even in the next century. But he knows it will happen eventually. Habitable planets just outside our solar system have already been discovered. Loeb, Milner and other scientists are now seeking how to get us there. "We just need to think about the big picture and, you know, have a plan B."
And – excuse the pun – this is no pie-in-the-sky attempt. Serious minds are behind the initiative. Loeb, who has published more than 500 scientific papers, is now the chair of the Harvard Astronomy Department. Stephen Hawking and Mark Zuckerberg are serving as board members for the project.
A plan to literally save humanity is set for takeoff. And it was all hatched on the floor of an Israeli goat farm.
So how do they hope to accomplish this?
Loeb and others looked at many possible avenues of traveling outside our solar system. "We reached a conclusion that there is only one technology at the moment that looks feasible, in principle, that doesn't violate the laws of physics," Loeb explained.
Specifically, this is their challenge: They want to send spacecrafts to the Alpha Centauri star system, which is about four light-years away. At a fifth of the speed of light, it would take around 20 years to get there. As if that weren't enough, it would take another four years to notify Earth of a successful arrival.
The scientists have found a way to make this happen. It basically involves pushing tiny spaceships with a powerful laser beam outside our solar system. Last month, the initiative saw its first tangible success. They launched the world's smallest spacecraft. How small were they? Called "Sprites," these 3.5-by-3.5 centimeter chips weigh just four grams but contain solar panels, computers, cameras and radios. They're about the size of a cracker.
The next step is this: developing an array of medium-scale lasers back on Earth that will combine to form one large, powerful beam that can push the tiny spaceships, which are attached to a lightweight sail. The push will give the spacecraft enough energy so that it will reach a fraction of the speed of light. Once these spaceships arrive, they can take photos and report back to Earth what they find.
Milner – who was named after Yuri Gagarin, the first human to travel into outer space – has pumped $100 million into the feasibility studies. And Loeb is optimistic. "My personal hope is that once we send a spacecraft to the nearest star, we will get a message back from space saying, 'Welcome to the interstellar club.'"
The Green Bank Telescope in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia is the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope. (Photo: Jamiev_03/Flickr)
In addition to the spaceships, researchers are already sending out signals into outer space. And, for now, we are listening. The Breakthrough Starshot Initiative has commandeered observation time on three of the world's largest telescopes – in California, West Virginia and Australia.
Loeb thinks that "Are we alone?" is the most important question in science. "My working hypothesis is that we are not special. And I call this cosmic modesty," he told us.
"If you think about it, when the emperor or king was very proud of conquering a piece of land on Earth, they resembled an ant that hugs a grain of sand in the landscape of the huge beach. It teaches you modesty. If you look at the big picture, you realize that you are not special. And I think the mere fact that we exist means probably that there are many more like us out there."
We asked him if this makes him a natural fan of space movies. "I have to confess that I don't like science fiction," he said, laughing. "I get upset about things that violate the laws of physics, so I cannot enjoy so much the artistic aspects of the movie, when I see things that don't make sense. It bothers me."
But he pointed out that there are recent films – like "The Martian" and "Gravity" – which were more rooted in reality. In particular, he enjoyed the 2016 film "Arrival" featuring actress Amy Adams as a linguist who helps translate communications from one of several extraterrestrial spacecraft that have appeared across the globe. "It brought up the philosophical question of how to communicate."
The year 2019 will mark the 50th anniversary of the moment that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first stepped on the moon. Loeb believes that we can reach the nearest stars within our lifetimes. "This will be the biggest leap forward since the Apollo mission. I like challenges," he told us. "It's not fun otherwise."
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Related Topics: Space