The New York Times article A Visionary Project Aims for Alpha Centauri, a Star 4.37 Light-Years Away describes an audacious project called Breakthrough Starshot. Its goal is to get a spacecraft to another solar system in 40 years. There are two important caveats:
- The spacecraft will just zip through the solar system without stopping.
- The spacecraft would be very, very small, only about a gram (about the weight of the guts of an iPhone).
You could think of it as a teeny tiny Rama (Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke) or maybe Earth's version of Kamin's flute (The Inner Light from Star Trek: The Next Generation) carrying knowledge about who we are to stars throughout the galaxy.
In 45 years we could be seeing photos of other worlds!
The cost is relatively small, estimated to be between $5 billion and $10 billion spread out over about 20 years. NASA's current budget is $19.3 billion per year, so the cost would be about 2.5% of NASA's budget over the 20 years. Or would it be better if this was privately funded like the interstellar project in Allen Steele's book Arkwright? (As of 2016-04-12 Mark Zuckerberg was estimated to be worth $48.2 billion; Bill Gates, $77.2 billion)
And since most of the technology will be spent developing the technologies and the giant laser array, all of which can be re-used, the marginal cost to send a fleet of spacecraft to additional solar systems should be very inexpensive.
In two decades we could take the initial steps to becoming an interstellar civilization.