Breakthrough Starshot, the $100 million initiative aiming to accelerate small spacecraft to a good fraction of the speed of light to send probes to to nearby stars by the mid-21st century, has achieved what might prove to be a “Sputnik moment” in successfully lofting its first spacecraft—the smallest ever launched and operated in orbit.
On June 23, Breakthrough Starshot sent not one but six satellites into low-Earth orbit, riding as supplementary payloads on an Indian rocket PSLV-C38 launching two other educational satellites Max Valier and Venta-1 built by the European space company OHB System AG. These six satellites are comparatively dainty, but punch far above their weight. Called “Sprites,” each is a 4-gram flake of circuit-board just 3.5 centimeters on a side, packing solar panels, computers, sensors and communications equipment into an area equal to a U.S. postage stamp. It is now confirm that at least one of the Sprites (probably the one mounted to Venta-1) is transmitting and has been successfully decoded by several ground stations around the world.
The Sprites seemed to be functioning relatively well for an initial flight. They experienced some communications hiccups. But this is just a small hiccup — the Sprites are just prototypes of the “StarChips” that will eventually launch several decades from now. The goal is to strap a microweight space probe onto a star sail, then fire high-powered pulses of photons from a gargantuan ground-based laser array. This will accelerate it to around 20 percent the speed of light. Starshot plans on sending several at a time, increasing the odds that one or more will make it to their final destination in the Alpha Centauri system.
The Sprites are an important first step. The prototype has been built. Now, it’s just time to scale it up so we can head to the stars.
Image Credit zacinaction.github.io