Breakthrough Starshot Sends Chip Craft To The Stars
Physics superstar Stephen Hawking and billionaire Yuri Milner have a vision of interstellar exploration taking place over the course of not thousands of years, but decades.
Together with a team of scientists, they suggest that within a generation, humans could send a probe to Alpha Centauri more than 4.3 light-years away, or 25 trillion miles on a trip that would take just over two decades. That's 1,000 times faster than the current fastest spacecraft, the scientists say.
They're thinking big by thinking very small.
Instead of sending a car-size or piano-size probe, the "Breakthrough Starshot" team is proposing a postage-stamp-size spacecraft a "starchip." The project, announced by Hawking and Milner on Tuesday, would engineer a method for such a nanocraft to be propelled through space by a sail, pushed by a powerful laser aimed from Earth.
The idea of laser cannon can be found first in science fiction in Larry Niven's 1966 short story Neutron Star. However, the term "laser cannon" was used earlier. In a 1962 book titled Report on Laser Design Study, we find "results of the design analysis indicate the feasibility of proceeding with the construction of a LASER cannon system at once."
The basic idea for the laser cannon/light sail propulsion system belongs to Robert L. Forward, who published a short paper Ground-Based Lasers For Propulsion In Space in 1961.
And who first suggested that space travel could be accomplished by means of light pressure? Amazingly, Jules Verne suggested it in 1867 - see the article on light pressure propulsion.
Update: I was poking around and recalled that Larry Niven had a more specific term for a lasers that launched or accelerated space craft: he called them launching lasers in his 1971 story The Fourth Profession.