Last year, extraterrestrial exploration venture Breakthrough Initiatives announced an ambitious plan to send tons of tiny spacecraft to our nearest neighboring star system, Alpha Centauri. The project, called Breakthrough Starshot, is focused on launching lightweight ‘nanocraft’ to the stars at rip-roaring speeds. Recently, the project took a big leap toward achieving its ultimate goal by successfully sending six test craft into Low Earth Orbit.
The tiny spacecraft, called “Sprites,” are just 3.5 centimeters on each side and weigh about four grams. Aerospace engineer Zac Manchester, who is leading the design on the Sprites, has been working on them for the last 10 years.
“What we’ve set out to do from the beginning is push the size limits of spacecraft,” Manchester told Gizmodo. “The question was how small can we make a satellite and still make it do something useful. One of the challenges is how can you get enough power, and given the tiny power you can harvest, how do you communicate back to Earth?”
Manchester and his fellow researchers hope that eventually, mini spacecraft similar to the Sprites—called StarChips—will be able to travel at 20% the speed of light, which translates to about 37,000 miles per second. It would take a spacecraft traveling at this speed less than seven seconds to reach the Moon from Earth, according to Sky and Telescope.
Those are speeds and distances no spacecraft of any size has gone before. Currently, the farthest spacecraft ever built is NASA’s Voyager 1, which launched in 1977, and only just reached Interstellar space a few years back.
For now, the Sprites are chillin’ in Low Earth Orbit. They launched on June 23rd on an Indian rocket called the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). Breakthrough Starshot anticipates that a second satellite will release more soon.
Obviously, much more work needs to be done before we get our hopes up about an interstellar voyage. But for astrobiology nerds and tinfoil hat believers alike, the Sprites’ successful launch could be an important step toward finding life beyond Earth.
“The distances are immense and it’s a big challenge,” Manchester added. “We’re a long way out to the eventual goals [of Breakthrough Starshot], but we’re setting the early precedent here.”