Breakthrough Starshot, a programme to develop and launch practical interstellar space missions, has successfully flown its first spacecraft – the smallest ever launched.

Breakthrough Starshot was announced in April 2016 by Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking. It is a $100 million research and engineering programme aiming to demonstrate proof of concept for light-propelled spacecraft that could fly at 20% 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.

It is one of the Breakthrough Initiatives, a set of long-term astronomical programmes exploring the Universe, seeking scientific evidence of life beyond Earth, and encouraging public debate.

Sprites and StarChips

On June 23, a number of prototype “Sprites” – the world’s smallest fully functional space probes, built on a single circuit board – achieved Low Earth Orbit, piggybacking on OHB System AG’s ‘Max Valier’ and ‘Venta’ satellites. The 3.5-by-3.5 centimetre chips weigh just four grams but contain solar panels, computers, sensors and radios.

“These vehicles are the next step of a revolution in spacecraft miniaturisation that can contribute to the development of centimetre- and gram-scale ‘StarChips’ envisioned by the Breakthrough Starshot project,” a statement from Startshot says.

The Sprite is the brainchild of Breakthrough Starshot’s Zac Manchester, whose 2011 Kickstarter campaign, “KickSat”, raised the first funds to develop the concept. The Sprites were constructed by researchers at Cornell University and transported into space as secondary payloads by the Max Valier and Venta satellites, the latter built by the Bremen-based OHB System AG, whose generous assistance made the mission possible.

Proof of concept

The Sprites remain attached to the satellites. Communications received from the mission show the Sprite system 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. This mission is designed to test how well the Sprites’ electronics perform in orbit, and demonstrates their novel radio communication architecture.