STEPHEN Hawking’s plans for a small space craft that could fly to our closest planet in as little as 20 years has been approved by NASA.
The tiny space ship, which was dreamed up by a team of scientists including Professor Stephen Hawking, would be flown to Proxima b, a newly-discovered Earth-like planet orbiting Proxima Centauri – the closest neighbouring star to the Sun.
It occupies in the “habitable zone” of the star, where temperatures are cool enough for the water, and therefore life, to thrive, and has a rocky surface like ours.
Plans for a fleet of the self-repairing space crafts that may be able to reach the planet, were unveiled in April, but now NASA has confirmed it is working on initial designs.
There was concern the small craft, which would fly at 15 to 20 percent of the speed of light, could not survive the 4.37 light-years, in excess of 25 trillion miles, mission due to radiation damage causing it to break down on the journey that would take between 20 and 30 years.
But NASA has now revealed a silicon chip, that can automatically repair itself in case of space ray deterioration, could be fitted to the crafts to prevent this.
Mr Hawking is keen to get the fleet into space within a generation.
He has repeatedly said mankind has just 1,000 years to find a new planet to live on before we destroy the Earth.
In April, he said: “The limit that confronts us now is the great void between us and the stars.
“But now we can transcend it.
“With light beams, light sails, and the lightest spacecraft ever built, we can launch a mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation.
“Today, we commit to this next great leap into the cosmos because we are human, and our nature is to fly.”
Reports emerged in August that the European Southern Observatory (ESO) had discovered the rocky planet using NASA’s Kepler Telescope.
If the ships get there and find the atmosphere proves safe, it is hoped it could one day be reached by humanity.
Proxima b is only five per cent of the distance that the Earth is from the sun to its star, but as the star is a red-dwarf, it is much cooler, meaning that the planet is still in the ‘goldilocks zone’ – the region of space around a host star where it is not too hot, nor too cold.
However, the planet is being bombarded by powerful ultraviolet rays and X-rays from Proxima Centauri so any life there would have needed to evolve to be equipped to deal with this.
Co-author of the study published in the journal Nature in August, Dr John Barnes, from the Open University, said: “If further research concludes that the conditions of its atmosphere are suitable to support life, this is arguably one of the most important scientific discoveries we will ever make.”