On June 23, 2017, a slew of Sprite spacecraft had a successful launch into orbit. But, it was more than just a trip to Earth's orbit, it was the first step into a new kind of space mission, one that promises to take us farther, faster than ever before.
The premise behind Breakthrough Starshot is simple: make space travel more practical by making the spaceship smaller. As in, much smaller. The Sprite prototype spaceships measure a mere 3.5cm by 3.5cm and weigh 4 grams. They use solar panels for power, light beams for propulsion, and include computing along with sensor and transmission functions.
Researchers at Cornell University constructed the Sprites, which were piggybacked into orbit as secondary payloads by the Max Valier and Venta satellites with the assistance of OHB System and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). The Sprites are still attached to the satellites.
The launch was designed to test the Sprites' electronics systems, and so far, the news is great. The Sprites are doing well. System tests have seen them transmitting messages between New York and California using ground-based communication systems, and their signals have been verified by amateur radio fans all over the globe.
Even though Alpha Centauri is the next closest star system to our own, it's still 25 trillion miles, or 4.37 light years, away. That means that, with today's technology, it would take us 30,000 years just to get there.
Tiny spacecrafts that use a light beam to essentially push them along can fly more than a thousand times faster than the large spacecrafts we've been employing so far. It's using Silicon Valley technology to miniaturize the whole concept of a spacecraft, resulting in the development of StarChips, which are gram-scale wafers that can incorporate cameras, photon thrusters, a power supply, navigation, and communication equipment at a drastically reduced scale.
In business terms, it's about economies of scale. A StarChip can be produced for about the cost of an iPhone. It makes it viable to send a number of Sprites into orbit all at once. The light beamer technology that propels the tiny spacecraft is scalable, and it's anticipated that each successive launch will actually cost less and less, by a few hundred thousand dollars each time.
The Sprites are set to become even smaller as development continues, down to a single-chip spacecraft. Developers hope that Sprites can be deployed in a wide variety of ways other than space travel, including creating three-dimensional weather antennas stationed in deep space. A swarm of Sprites could be used by a larger orbiting spacecraft to search a planet for signs of extraterrestrial life, or look for water or mineral deposits.
The Breakthrough Initiative was started with a Kickstarter campaign called KickSat in 2011, with a goal of promoting science, scientists, and knowldge culture while "expanding our understanding of the universe." Breakthrough Starshot, an important part of the program, was officially launched in April 2016 by science philanthropist Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. The announcement came on April 12, the 55th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering space flight in the Sputnik.
The $100 million research and engineering initiative's goal is to prove that the miniature, light-propelled spacecraft could fly at 20 percent the speed of light. The goal is to reach Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to our own, and the exoplanet Proxima B within 20 years to record data, take measurements, and transmit images.
Headed by Pete Worden, the former director of NASA AMES Research Center, members of the Starshot advisory team come from some of the world's leading researchers in the field, including Nobel Prize winners Saul Perlmutter (UC Berkeley) and Stephen Chu (Stanford University). Given Worden's connections and the obvious potential of Sprite technology, a NASA connection seems likely in the future.
Breakthrough Initiatives' overall goals include the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life, along with sparking public interest and debate in the subject.