Is There Life on Other Planets? Starshot Intiative Plans to Find Out

Recently, at a packed presentation in the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Abraham “Avi” Loeb, the chair of the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative told listeners about the cosmic modesty principle, which states that due to the enormous size of the universe, Earth is likely not the only planet to contain life.

Breakthrough Starshot is the brainchild of physicist and investor Yuri Milner, a $100 million research and engineering project that aims to develop proof-of-concept of light sail spacecraft named StarChip.  

The StarChip nanocraft is the proposed spacecraft that will travel to the Alpha Centauri star system, the nearest extrasolar stars, about 4.37 light-years away from Earth, with the journey taking 20-30 years. Philip Lubin of UC Santa Barbara, an advisor on the project, described the conceptual principles of the nanocraft. It will do a flyby of Proxima Centauri b, an exoplanet the size of Earth that is in the habitable zone of the host star. Astronomers hope to capture images finding liquid water on the planet’s surface, which would mean that it can sustain life.

Abraham “Avi” Loeb, the chair of the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative.

Meanwhile, Avi Loeb described life on other planets as a distinct possibility: “If you realize that a quarter of all the stars are hosting habitable Earths, then there are more habitable planets in the observable volume of the universe than there are grains of sand in all the beaches on Earth.”

Of course, the project is not without challenges. One such difficulty is the actual design of the StarChip: making it lightweight enough so that it can travel at a fifth of the speed of light. To keep the weight low, it will only come equipped with a camera, a navigation device and a communication device. Also, its acceleration will depend on an extremely powerful laser.

“The amount of energy that you need to invest in this launch process is similar to the liftoff of a space shuttle,” Loeb said at the lecture. “Except now, the concept is to deliver it to just a few grams of material — that’s why it reaches a much higher speed — instead of many tons.”

For the space nation Asgardia, which is looking to expand human habitability to Space Arcs and later to settlements on the Moon, finding planets that are capable of sustaining life is extremely important.

Humans have been looking for signs of extraterrestrial life for years. Loeb believes that this project will bring us one step closer to confirming whether life is possible in our neighbouring star systems.