The smallest ever spacecraft has been put into orbit in what may be the first step towards the stars.
Breakthrough Starshot is a plan to send man-made probes across the gulf of space to our nearest neighbor, Proxima Centauri.
The idea is that to accelerate a cluster of tiny crafts to the immense speeds necessary to cover the 4.24 light years within a human lifetime, it will need to be as small and light as possible.
Over the weekend, a bundle of spacecraft — no more than a microchip on a single circuit board — were put into orbit to test the functionality of such nanoprobe “star chips.” Breakthrough is calling its prototype “star chips” Sprites.
It’s hoped that future examples of these will be shot beyond our solar system on the backs of tiny light sails. A network of Earth-based lasers will blast them with its beams, accelerating them to an astronomical 20 percent of the speed of light.
In themselves, though, the probes are no lightweights.
The 3.5 cm by 3.5 cm packages, weighing no more than 4 grams, will carry sensors, solar panels, processors and transmitters.
They’re intended to network together to get the best possible exploration results.
It’s hoped that enough of these tiny probes will survive the decades-long journey in order to snap close-up images of the Proxima Centauri star and solar systems as they flash by.
It will then take four years for that data to travel all the way back to Earth.
It’s the effectiveness of such probes that is now being tested in low orbit.
Six Sprites were launched on June 23, using spare space donated by commercial satellite launches.
Breakthrough Starshot says they are “performing as designed.”
“The spacecraft are in radio communication with ground stations in California and New York, as well as with amateur radio enthusiasts around the world,” according to a statement released by Breakthrough. “This mission is designed to test how well the Sprites’ electronics perform in orbit and…