However, Professor Loeb has said in order to stake a claim in the Cosmos, people may have to sacrifice some of their humanity as part of a new phase of evolution which embraces rapidly evolving technology. Prof Loeb, the Frank B Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University, is chairman the Advisory Committee for the Breakthrough Starshot project – an £80 million research and engineering program aiming to demonstrate proof of concept for a new technology, enabling ultra-light unmanned space flight at 20 percent of the speed of light.
The intention is to lay the foundations for a flyby mission to Alpha Centauri, 4.37 light years away, within a generation.
Prof Loeb, who expanded on the concept during a packed presentation at the New Scientist Live festival on Saturday, admitted: “That could be decades – we have to develop the technology.
“But I think we should take the first steps in that direction because otherwise that will never happen.
“Every long journey starts with a first step and that’s what I think we should take.
“With the right allocation of funds and people it potentially could work.”
The project was announced in 2016 in New York City by a physicist at an event attended by among others Prof Loeb and Yuri Milner and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who was serving as a board member.
The concept would involve a fleet of 1,000 tiny, interconnected spacecraft forming a “starsail” which could be targeted by a phased array of ground-based lasers focusing a light beam on their sails to accelerate them to a staggering 37,000 miles a second.
Even at such a speed, the starsail would take between 20 and 30 years to reach Proxima Centauri in the Alpha Centauri system, at which point it would beam back footage, which would itself take four years to travel across the vast gulf of space.
Professor Loeb, who has suggested Oumuamua, the mysterious interstellar object spotted racing through the solar system in 2017, could in fact be an alien probe, is an enthusiastic advocate of searching for intelligent life in the galaxy.
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Quite apart from potentially solving the riddle of whether there is life of Proxima Centauri b, an Earth-sized planet in the star’s habitable zone, Prof Loeb said the Breakthrough Starshot could potentially pave the way for a dramatic phase of space exploration, Prof Loeb said.
However, he said it would also require the development of new technologies, and rely heavily on artificial intelligence and robots.
It was probable, he conceded, that people themselves would need to be “enhanced” by technology in order to cope with the rigours of life away from the benevolent conditions found on Earth, marking a dramatic new phase of development as a species.
He added: “It would make us move to the next stage, longer-lived, more resilient to changing conditions.
“I have no pride in us being just a soup of chemicals formed randomly on Earth.
“There’s nothing to be proud of and let’s move on to the next phase.
“We’ve made some progress as a species but that’s not the end of the story and to survive much longer we need to transform into something else, making a leap with technology.”
Of course, such conclusions also have implications for the search for extraterrestrial life, which may even dispense with biology altogether in favour of the artificial and technological, possibly in the form of huge alien “megastructures” orbiting planet.
Prof Loeb said: “Then you will find not them on planets, you will find them as technological equipment in space, and that’s what I’m suggesting looking for.”
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