Humans have gone from ape-man to space-man in a very short peri­od of time – cos­mi­cal­ly speak­ing, that is.

It’s tak­en research, devel­op­ment, hard work, bet­ter and faster means of pro­duc­tion, and a whole lot of brain pow­er to get where we are today.

We’ve walked on the moon. We have humans liv­ing in a space sta­tion that per­ma­nent­ly orbits the plan­et, and we’ve sent robot pio­neers to many cor­ners of our solar system.

The next fron­tier is inter­stel­lar space – escap­ing the grav­i­ta­tion­al clutch­es of our pre­cious, life-giv­ing Sun and head­ing out towards the oth­er stars of our Milky Way galaxy.

Except for one prob­lem: the next near­est star sys­tem, Alpha Cen­tau­ri, is 4.22 light years away from Earth. That means it would take just over four years to get there if humans trav­elled at the speed of light, which clocks in at a the­o­ret­i­cal­ly impos­si­ble 1 080 mil­lion kilo­me­tres per hour.

So much for that, then. 

Our fastest ship in exis­tence right now would take 30 000 years to reach Alpha Cen­tau­ri, and we might well have lost inter­est by then.

Enter Pro­fes­sor Stephen Hawk­ing, pos­ses­sor of one of the finest brains of our species, and Yury Mil­ner, pos­ses­sor of a lot of money:

The idea sounds like it’s straight of a sci-fi nov­el, but Hawk­ing and Mil­ner are deter­mined to turn their idea from fic­tion to fact.

Tiny lit­tle nanocraft pro­pelled by lasers could reach 20% the speed of light, which sud­den­ly cuts down the jour­ney to the stars to a mere 20 years.

It’s very much in the ear­ly stages of devel­op­ment, and Milner’s $100-mil­lion will only go as far as fund­ing some pre­lim­i­nary research, but announce­ments like this rein­vig­o­rate the pio­neer­ing imag­i­na­tion of human beings, and inspire us to keep­ing reach­ing for the stars.

Keen to learn more about the stars? Join us on our next stargaz­ing evening with Vin­cent Nettmann.