Arthur J. Villasanta – Fourth Estate Contributor
New York, NY, United States (4E) – Breakthrough Starshot, a multi-faceted program to develop and launch practical interstellar space missions, is poised to take the next step in an ambitious and incredible program to send a fleet of spacecraft the size of a dime to Alpha Centauri, the galaxy nearest to our own.
The minuscule spacecraft called StarChips have dimensions of 3.5 cm x 3.5 cm (1.4 inches x 1.4 inches). Their prototypes called “Sprite,” a family of mini-satellites, are the world’s smallest fully functional space probes and are built on a single circuit board.
A number of Sprites achieved Low Earth Orbit (LEO) attached to the “Max Valier Sat” and “Venta 1” satellites developed by the German firm OHB System AG. These satellites and over 20 others were taken into LEO on June 23, 2017 by an Indian PSLV XL launch vehicle that lifted-off from India.
Sprites weigh just four grams but contain solar panels, computers, sensors, and radios. These spacecraft are the next step of a revolution in spacecraft miniaturization that can contribute to the development of centimeter- and gram-scale “StarChips” envisioned by the Breakthrough Starshot project.
Sprite is the brainchild of Breakthrough Starshot’s Zac Manchester, whose 2011 Kickstarter campaign called “KickSat” raised the first funds to develop the concept. Sprites were built by researchers at Cornell University and transported into space as secondary payloads by the Max Valier Sat and Venta 1 satellites.
Sprites remain attached to the satellites. Communications received from the mission show the Sprite system performing as designed.
Sprites are in radio communication with ground stations in California and New York, as well as with amateur radio enthusiasts around the world. This mission is designed to test how well the Sprites’ electronics perform in orbit, and demonstrates their novel radio communication architecture.
Breakthrough Initiatives (including Breakthrough Starshot and Breakthrough Listen) are a set of long-term astronomical programs exploring the Universe; seeking scientific evidence of life beyond Earth and encouraging public debate from a planetary perspective.
Announced on April 12, 2016, by Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking, Breakthrough Starshot is a $100 million research and engineering program aiming to demonstrate proof of concept for light-propelled spacecraft that can fly at 20 percent of light speed and, in just over 20 years after their launch, capture images and other measurements of the exoplanet Proxima b and other planets in our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri.
Max Valier Sat is a 15 kg nanosatellite with an X-ray astronomy payload and an amateur radio payload. The full attitude controlled satellite will scan the sky for bright X-ray sources.
The next step that will allow StarChips to make the fantastic voyage to Proxima b will be the addition of minuscule solar sails to each of these nano-satellites.
These ultra-lightweight sails no thicker than a few hundred atoms will be bombarded by a huge array of powerful Earth-based laser beams that will generate enough thrust to propel this minuscule fleet consisting of hundreds and perhaps more than a thousand StarChips to Proxima b some 25 trillion miles away.
It should take the fleet over 20 years to make the epic voyage. It will take a further four years for photos taken by the StarChip nono-satellites to reach Earth.
The StarChips will need to fly at least one-fifth the speed of light (37,200 miles per second) to reach the exoplanet in two decades.
“Now that’s a challenge,” says Avi Loeb of the Breakthrough Starshot project and professor of science and chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University.
“But it’s doable.”
Breakthrough Starshot scientists need perhaps “several decades” to build and prepare the nano-satellites, said Loeb. All told, the mission will take about a half century.
“This is more challenging than the Apollo mission,” according to Loeb. “We face fundamental questions.”
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