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Stephen Hawking supports Starshot project -

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MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: The respected cosmologist Professor Stephen Hawking has launched a mission to reach our nearest star system within a generation.

Alpha Centauri is 25 trillion miles away.

Professor Hawking argues the voyage is achievable using the lightest spacecraft ever built.

He's teamed with Russian billionaire Yuri Milner to develop the technology.

Brendan Trembath reports.

BRENDAN TREMBATH: Famous for his cameos on comedy shows like The Big Bang Theory and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Professor Hawking began with a monologue on the subject what makes humans unique.

STEPHEN HAWKING: Some say it's language or tools, others say it's logical reasoning. They obviously haven't met many humans.

BRENDAN TREMBATH: But seriously the cosmologist suggests what makes humans unique is transcending their limits.

STEPHEN HAWKING: Gravity pins us to the ground but I just flew to America.

BRENDAN TREMBATH: He could not have spoken at this event without the assistance of technology.

STEPHEN HAWKING: I lost my voice but I can still speak thanks to my voice synthesiser.

BRENDAN TREMBATH: Professor Stephen Hawking has lent his star power and brain power to a quest dubbed Starshot.

STEPHEN HAWKING: 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.

BRENDAN TREMBATH: This space mission has big names and buckets of money.

The billionaire Russian physicist and investor Yuri Milner hopes humans can reach the stars in his lifetime.

He recounted how they've already crossed every frontier on the planet.

YURI MILNER: A few millennia ago the Polynesians sailed into unknown seas with no way of knowing what lay ahead. There risked everything and settled the Pacific, navigating by the stars they must have wondered what the stars really are.

BRENDAN TREMBATH: The other Starshot supporters include Ann Druyan, a writer and producer of award-winning television about popular science and cosmology.

She noted the late American cosmologist Carl Sagan was an early proponent of solar sailing.

ANN DRUYAN: And I remember in the 1970s when he first described to me this means of moving through the cosmos. I couldn't get over how, what a mythic achievement it seemed to me that it would be to be able to ride the light. What an immaculate way of travelling through the cosmos.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: TV writer and producer Ann Druyan ending that report by Brendan Trembath.