Two atheists and a minimally observant Jew have recently teamed up on a $100 million research and development project aimed at designing a fleet of tiny spacecraft that would take only twenty years to reach the nearest stars and photograph their planets.
Ancient priests and prophets looked up to the sky in the belief that the sun and stars were the celestial abode of God and the angels.
Today scientists and tech billionaires look to the stars of our earthly heaven—the vastness of space—with similar thoughts on their mind: Are we all alone, or do we have company out there?
You see, this massive new scientific and technological initiative, along with several other recent big-ticket privately funded programs, are driven by the hope of discovering extraterrestrial life.
In a fascinating article at Wired.com, “How Russian Tycoon Yuri Milner Bought His Way Into Silicon Valley,” author Michael Wolff asked Milner how observant he was as a Jew. Milner replied, “Very limited.” Yes, he attends synagogue. But apparently his religious life doesn’t go much farther than that. The other two members of the Breakthrough Starshot board, world-famous physicist Stephen Hawking and billionaire Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, are both atheists.
For tech billionaires and physicists alike, beyond making buckets of money and discovering the scientific secrets of the cosmos, there is a deep yearning to reach out and discover life beyond our little planet orbiting a small star tucked toward the edge of a rather ordinary galaxy among billions of galaxies and trillions of stars in the universe.
It is a yearning that is almost . . . spiritual.
The Breakthrough Starshot Initiative
Milner, Hawking, and Zuckerberg—together with an impressive array of leaders and advisors from the arenas of science, technology, and advanced education—believe that the recently announced Breakthrough Starshot Initiative represents the next giant leap in human exploration.
With current rocket technology, it would take 30,000 years to reach the nearest star. Breakthrough Starshot aims to cut that down to a mere twenty years!
Of course, it won’t involve getting humans to neighboring stars. But it would send us back a wealth of images and information about the solar systems and planets in our galactic neighborhood.
The initiative seeks to combine three hot areas of recent technological development:
Here’s the basic idea: A tiny, wafer-thin “StarChip” spacecraft about the size of a postage stamp and weighing only a few grams would be attached to an ultra lightweight solar sail a few meters wide. But instead of being propelled by light from the sun, it would be propelled by a powerful earth-based laser array placed at the top of a remote mountain range in South America, where the air is thin and atmospheric interference is minimized.
Hundreds of these “nanocrafts” would be carried into high earth orbit by a mothership. Once per day, the mothership would deploy a single spacecraft. The laser array would then focus 100 gigawatts of laser power on the solar sail, accelerating it to 100 million miles an hour—about 20% of the speed of light—in only ten minutes.
At that speed, the spacecraft would reach Alpha Centauri, our closest star (actually a three-star system), in about twenty years. As it whizzed by, the spacecraft would snap pictures, gather data, and send it all back to earth with laser communication technology built into the nanocraft, using the solar sail as an antenna. Sending hundreds of these miniature explorers to the same destination would provide greater assurance that at least some of them would be successful.
It’s an elegant system. Designing it will push the limits of our technology. And building the full system, Milner estimates, would cost a cool $10 billion. However, if the technical challenges can be overcome and the money raised to build and deploy the system, it would then be relatively inexpensive to continue sending whole fleets of these nanocrafts to dozens, or even hundreds, of nearby stars to search for signs of life on other worlds.
Here is a video from the March 12 event in which Yuri Milner outlines the plan and provides visuals:
You can read an in-depth article about the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative at The Atlancic: “Inside a Billionaire’s New Interstellar Mission.” For additional video, including a speech delivered by Stephen Hawking at the project unveiling event, see “Stephen Hawking Helps Launch Project ‘Starshot’ for Interstellar Space Exploration” at Space.com.
Where is everybody?
The Breakthrough Starshot Initiative is the latest entry in a long history of efforts collectively known as “SETI” (the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence).
Though scientific SETI projects go all the way back to the late 1800s, the invention of radio telescopes in the early 1900s led to a whole new chapter in the search for advanced civilizations beyond our own solar system. The idea is that if there are intelligent beings living in other solar systems, they should have developed the ability to transmit radio signals similar to our radio technology here on earth.
There’s only one problem: After listening for nearly a century now, we still haven’t heard a peep.
Oh, there have been some false alarms. But to date we have not detected a single radio signal from another civilization out there in space. And that has led to the Fermi paradox, encapsulated by Enrico Fermi’s famous question, “Where is everybody?”
There are an estimated 100 billion galaxies in the universe, averaging perhaps 100 billion stars each. The likelihood that there are other advanced civilizations in the universe should be quite high. There should be radio signals from other advanced civilizations criss-crossing our own galaxy.
Yet so far, all we’ve heard is a deafening silence.
Are we really all alone as intelligent, self-aware beings in this incredibly vast universe?
Is there nobody else out there for us to make contact with?
SETI and spirituality
When we hear the words “science” and “technology,” we commonly think of computers and the Internet, space ships, medical research, robots, genetic engineering, and so on.
What probably doesn’t come immediately to mind is making friends.
And yet, that’s really what SETI is all about.
Yes, there are all sorts of fascinating scientific questions that SETI aims to answer, such as:
- What, exactly, is life?
- How did life developed in the first place?
- How common (or rare) is life is in the universe?
- Is life something that the universe does as a matter of course, or is it just a fluke here on our planet?
But what the big proponents of SETI really want to know is whether we’re all alone in the universe, or whether there are others out there whom we can meet, make friends with, and share the richness of our respective cultures with one another.
That is the driving motive behind Carl Sagan’s well-known 1985 science fiction novel Contact, whose plot involves people from earth making contact with an extraterrestrial civilization.
But Sagan did not reject spirituality. He wrote:
Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages; when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both. (From The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan, published posthumously in 1997)
In other words, for Sagan, spirituality is the very human experience of awe at the vastness, intricacy, and beauty of the universe in which we live, and the powerful emotions we feel when we encounter the emotions expressed by other human beings in art, music, and literature, and in lives that show selfless courage.
In short, for Sagan, spirituality exists in the realm of human thoughts, emotions, and relationships with other humans and with the cosmos in which we live.
Sagan was one of the greatest proponents of SETI. And in his view, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a highly spiritual endeavor. It is an expression of our yearning for relationships with other intelligent, self-aware beings with whom (we hope) we share this universe.
And who am I to argue with Carl Sagan?
Spirituality is relationship
More to the point, despite Sagan’s lack of belief in any traditional idea of God, I think Sagan was onto something in his view of spirituality.
It is common for people to think of “spirit” as something wispy and ethereal that lacks solidity and substance. The afterlife is often conceived of as a place where we exist as ghostly, disembodied beings who waft around ethereal realms as pure consciousness and pure energy.
But Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) saw the afterlife, and spirituality in general, in far more practical and concrete terms. Heaven, he said, is a community of very real people (now angels), who have spiritual bodies that are virtually indistinguishable from our physical bodies here on earth. Angels, Swedenborg said, spend their days serving one another through useful work, and enjoying relationships and recreational activities with one another just as we do here on earth. (See: Who Are the Angels and How Do They Live?)
Spirituality is not some navel-gazing communion with our inner soul. It is a network of relationships of mutual love, understanding, kindness, and service with our fellow human beings, and with the world in which we live.
That’s why I’m excited about the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative. It’s unlikely that I’ll live long enough to see those first transmissions start arriving back from a fleet of nanocraft shot on beams of light from earth to Alpha Centauri.
But I am excited for coming generations of people on earth who may be the first to receive solid, scientific evidence that we are not alone in the universe—that there are others out there with whom we may one day form relationships of mutual love, understanding, and service.
This, I believe, will represent a giant leap forward in the spiritual life of humankind.
(Note: Our thanks go to a reader named Blessing who brought this story to our attention.)
For further reading:
- Do Atheists Go to Heaven?
- How does The Force in Star Wars relate to God and Spirit?
- The World is Coming to an End! . . . Says . . . Stephen Hawking?!?
- Aliens vs. Advent: Swedenborg’s 1758 Book on Extraterrestrial Life
- On Pluto, Atoms, and Other Things (such as Heaven) that Just Keep Getting More Complex
- Spirit: The Final Frontier