Astronomy at the Speed of Light


The following essay is reprinted with permission from The Conversation, an online publication covering the latest research.

Astronomers strive to observe the universe via ever more advanced techniques. Whenever researchers invent a new method, unprecedented information is collected and people’s understanding of the cosmos deepens.

An ambitious program to blast cameras far beyond the solar system was announced in April 2016 by internet investor and science philanthropist Yuri Milner, late physicist Stephen Hawking and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Called “Breakthrough Starshot,” the idea is to send a bunch of tiny nano-spacecraft to the sun’s closest stellar neighbor, the three-star Alpha Centauri system. Traveling at around 20 percent the speed of light—so as fast as 100 million miles per hour—the craft and their tiny cameras would aim for the smallest but closest star in the system, Proxima Centari, and its planet Proxima b, 4.26 light-years from Earth.