An astonishing space mission to visit our nearest star system and find out if alien life exists has been launched by Professor Stephen Hawking.

Despite being visible in the night sky without a telescope, Alpha Centauri is 25 trillion miles away (4.3 light years) and would take around 30,000 years to reach with current technology.

However Professor Hawking has joined forces with Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, to develop technology which would allow a spacecraft to reach the star system in just 20 years.

Once there, a probe would sweep past the planets hunting for signs of advanced alien civilisations.

Earth-like planets have already been detected around the three stars of Alpha Centauri and scientists are hopeful that some may by located in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ – an area where it is neither too hot, nor cold, for life to thrive.

Launching the initial $100 million phase of the ‘Starshot’ mission at the One World Observatory in New York City, Prof Hawking said: “There are no greater heights to aspire to than the stars.

“What makes human beings unique? There are many theories. Some say it is language or tools, others say it is logical reasoning. They obviously haven’t met many humans.

“I believe what makes us unique is transcending our limits. Gravity pins us to the ground, but I just flew to America. I lost my voice but I can still speak. How do we transcend these limits? With our minds and our machines.

“The limit that confronts us now is the great void between us and the stars but now we can transcend it, with light beams and light sails and the lightest spacecraft ever built we can launch a mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation.”

Source: Professor Stephen Hawking announces mission to Alpha Centauri