In an unprecedented boost for interstellar travel, the Silicon Valley philanthropist Yuri Milner and the world’s most famous cosmologist Stephen Hawking have announced $100m (£70m) for research into a 20-year voyage to the nearest stars, at one fifth of the speed of light.

Breakthrough Starshot – the third Breakthrough initiative in the past four years – will test the knowhow and technologies necessary to send a featherweight robot spacecraft to the Alpha Centauri star system, at a distance of 4.37 light years: that is, 40,000,000,000,000 kilometres or 25 trillion miles.

A 100 billion-watt laser-powered light beam would accelerate a “nanocraft” – something weighing little more than a sheet of paper and driven by a sail not much bigger than a child’s kite, fashioned from fabric only a few hundred atoms in thickness – to the three nearest stars at 60,000km a second.

Milner, a Russian-born billionaire investor who began as a physicist, was one of the founders of the Breakthrough prizes, the biggest in science, announced in 2012 and awarded for fundamental research in physics, life sciences and mathematics. Last year, he and Professor Stephen Hawking of the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at Cambridge announced another $100m Breakthrough Listen initiative to step up the search for extraterrestrial life beyond the solar system. The project has just released its first data from stars within 16 light years of Earth. The entrepreneur describes science as his “hobby.”

Today’s announcement comes on the 55th anniversary of the first orbit of the planet by the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Milner, who was born in Moscow in 1961, was named after the cosmonaut.

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