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Stephen Hawking recently announced that he wants to send spacecraft to Alpha Centauri.

Image from Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Breakthrough Prize Foundation.


Hawking made the announcement with Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner on April 12, 2016 as part of the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative.

"I believe what makes us unique is transcending our limits," said Hawking, as reported by Ars Technica.

This is huge because while Alpha Centauri is the star nearest to Earth (besides the sun), it’s still more than four light years away.

View of Alpha Centauri from the Digitized Sky Survey 2. Image from ESO/DSS 2/Wikimedia Commons.

That's 25.6 trillion miles! To put that in perspective — if we magically shrank space to the point where the sun was just the size of a ping-pong ball, Alpha Centauri would still be nearly 800 miles away.

The biggest obstacle to achieving this journey so far has been that we don't have a spacecraft that can go anywhere near fast enough.

Image from Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Wikimedia Commons.

The New Horizons probe that NASA just sent past Pluto is traveling at an eye-watering 36,000 mph, but it would still take it 70,000 years to reach Alpha Centauri.

So that’s why — according to Hawking — we’re going to build new spacecraft. Tiny spacecraft.

Yuri Milner holding an example of one of the chips that could be the brains of each probe. Image from Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Breakthrough Prize Foundation.

Instead of one large ship, the plan is to launch thousands of small gram-sized probes. The idea relies on computer chips becoming increasingly smaller and more powerful over time — a trend that so far has held true.

We're going to build tiny spacecraft ... powered by LASERS.

GIF from Breakthrough/YouTube.

Each probe would fly behind lightweight reflective sails — known as lightsails. The lightsails would catch light from big arrays of lasers here on Earth, which could provide propulsion (the probes themselves, meanwhile, could be powered by small radioactive batteries).

These tiny spacecraft powered by lasers could — theoretically — get from Earth to Alpha Centauri IN JUST 20 YEARS.

GIF from Breakthrough/YouTube.

The lasers could accelerate the craft to speeds over a thousand times faster than what any current spacecraft are capable of, says Breakthrough. They predict they could get the mini-probes traveling up to about 20% the speed of light.

Of course, yes, it'll take time to get this project up and running — about 20 years just for that — and then another 20 years for the craft to get to Alpha Centauri, followed by a nail-bitingly agonizing at least four-year wait to send any pictures the probes take back to Earth.

The price tag on this project? A cool $100 million.

Getting these mini-craft working won't just be cool — they could help prove that lightsails are a good idea.

Artist's concept of a lightsail craft. Image from NASA/Wikimedia Commons.

There are many challenges ahead for Breakthrough's mini-craft, like how to actually even send signals back to Earth from such a distance, but if the project is successful, it has a couple benefits. The mini-craft could take pictures of alien worlds, for instance.

But the biggest benefit could be the proof-of-concept test of the lightsails. If they work, they could become commonplace, helping us explore the solar system and the universe beyond.

But for today, the most important part of the announcement is that it’s about always reaching for the stars — and that's a very good thing indeed.

Image from Jemal Countess/Getty Images.

"Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever," said Hawking in a statement reported by ABC News, “Sooner or later, we must look to the stars. Breakthrough Starshot is a very exciting first step on that journey.”

Joy

1991 blooper clip of Robin Williams and Elmo is a wholesome nugget of comedic genius

Robin Williams is still bringing smiles to faces after all these years.

Robin Williams and Elmo (Kevin Clash) bloopers.

The late Robin Williams could make picking out socks funny, so pairing him with the fuzzy red monster Elmo was bound to be pure wholesome gold. Honestly, how the puppeteer, Kevin Clash, didn’t completely break character and bust out laughing is a miracle. In this short outtake clip, you get to see Williams crack a few jokes in his signature style while Elmo tries desperately to keep it together.

Williams has been a household name since what seems like the beginning of time, and before his death in 2014, he would make frequent appearances on "Sesame Street." The late actor played so many roles that if you were ask 10 different people what their favorite was, you’d likely get 10 different answers. But for the kids who spent their childhoods watching PBS, they got to see him being silly with his favorite monsters and a giant yellow canary. At least I think Big Bird is a canary.

When he stopped by "Sesame Street" for the special “Big Bird's Birthday or Let Me Eat Cake” in 1991, he was there to show Elmo all of the wonderful things you could do with a stick. Williams turns the stick into a hockey stick and a baton before losing his composure and walking off camera. The entire time, Elmo looks enthralled … if puppets can look enthralled. He’s definitely paying attention before slumping over at the realization that Williams goofed a line. But the actor comes back to continue the scene before Elmo slinks down inside his box after getting Williams’ name wrong, which causes his human co-star to take his stick and leave.

The little blooper reel is so cute and pure that it makes you feel good for a few minutes. For an additional boost of serotonin, check out this other (perfectly executed) clip about conflict that Williams did with the two-headed monster. He certainly had a way of engaging his audience, so it makes sense that even after all of these years, he's still greatly missed.

This article originally appeared on 08.21.18


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