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.