Breakthrough Prize program awards $25 million

Black hole merger
An artist’s conception shows the merger of two black holes, which gives off a burst of gravitational waves. The detection of such waves won researchers one of this year’s Breakthrough Prizes. (SXS Graphic)

A program that’s richer than the Nobels rewarded more than a dozen researchers tonight with Breakthrough Prize awards amounting to $25.4 million in all.

The Breakthrough Prize program was founded in 2012 with support from such tech luminaries as Google co-founder Sergei Brin and his wife, Anne Wojcicki (23andMe); Russian entrepreneur-investor Yuri Milner and his wife, Julia Milner, and Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan (also known for her part in the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative).

Since then, more than $200 million has been handed out.

The backers of the Breakthrough Prizes are allied with several science-boosting Breakthrough Initiatives, including efforts to detect signals from extraterrestrial civilizations and send nanoprobes to the Alpha Centauri star system.

Most of tonight’s winners were revealed during a ceremony at NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley – with Morgan Freeman, star of the “Through the Wormhole” science documentary series, serving as host.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


How to shield a probe for trip to Alpha Centauri

Image: Starshot nano-probe
An artist’s conception suggests how light from a battery of laser-equipped antennas can power a sail to the Alpha Centauri system. (Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives)

The scientists behind the Breakthrough Starshot mission are already fine-tuning the design for their nano-probes to increase the odds they’ll survive the trip to Proxima Centauri b.

In a paper posted to the arXiv pre-print server last week, researchers lay out their latest calculations on the kinds of damage their scaled-down spacecraft could face as they speed toward the Alpha Centauri system at 20 percent of the speed of light.

The mission and the study have taken on greater importance, due to this week’s announcement that a potentially habitable planet has been detected in orbit around Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf that’s part of the star system. It’s the star that’s closest to our own solar system, lying only 4.2 light-years away.

In astronomical terms, Proxima Centauri is right next door. But in mission planning terms, it’s far, far away. It would take tens of thousands of years for a conventional spacecraft to get there.

To reduce that time frame, Breakthrough Starshot has proposed sending bunches of lightweight electronic wafers, known as “Starchips.” The Starchips would be accelerated to relativistic speeds by aiming powerful lasers at film-thin light sails that carry the probes along.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


1,015 LIGO scientists share $3 million prize

Image: LIGO Hanford
The beamlines for the LIGO detector site at Hanford stretch out across the desert terrain of southeastern Washington. Each arm of the L-shaped detector is 2.5 miles long. (Credit: LIGO)

This year’s revelations about gravitational waves are certain to win someone a Nobel Prize someday, but an even richer prize has already been awarded to the scientists behind the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO.

Caltech’s Kip Thorne and Ronald Drever, along with MIT’s Rainer Weiss, are among the winners of a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, worth $3 million. Those three founders of the $1.1 billion LIGO project will share $1 million of the prize. The remaining $2 million will be divvied up among the 1,012 authors ofFebruary’s research paper detailing the gravitational wave detection.

The announcement was made on May 2 by the prize selection committee.

Over the past five years, Breakthrough Prizes have been given out to researchers in life sciences, physics and mathematics. The founders of the prize program include such billionaire tech luminaries as Google’s Sergei Brin, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Russian investor Yuri Milner. (Milner is also behind the recently announcedBreakthrough Starshot mission to Alpha Centauri.)

Get the full story on GeekWire.