Your standard-issue rocket ship travels at around 35,000 miles per hour; at that rate, it would take some 80,000 years to reach our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri. But UCLA engineers are now working on a bold idea that could cut that commute down to 20 years.

UCLA materials engineer Aaswath Raman is part of a global team that’s designing the first interstellar sailing ship — a tiny but mighty probe designed to photograph faraway stars up close. The team, called Breakthrough Starshot, is planning to catapult a microchip-sized probe into the Earth’s upper atmosphere. There, it will deploy a conical-shaped sail that will be blasted by laser-beam-generated light, pushing the probe to accelerate to up to one-fifth of the speed of light on its way toward Alpha Centauri.

There is still work to do. For one, the sail has to survive the laser blast. “If the sail absorbs a fraction of this heat it will melt or tear, so we are designing a lacy sail with holes to radiate [the heat],” Raman says.

The prototype of the sail he designed, created at UCLA, is 10 feet wide and a thousand times thinner than a magazine page, with ridges and whorls. Once the concept moves out of the lab within the next few years, the sail could be built from aluminum oxide, a chemical compound also found in sunscreen.

The good news is that the probe could reach Alpha Centauri before 2050 and begin its explorations there. The bad news? Even if pictures suggest that the exoplanets in that neighborhood — such as Proxima c, for one — could be a future habitat for humans, it will take almost five years for the interstellar message to reach us. Good things come to those who wait.

Watch a virtual demonstration of the rocket sail!

Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Fall 2022 issue.