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Tiny probes get tested for interstellar mission

Yuri Milner and Sprite
Russian billionaire Yuri Milner holds a “Sprite” mini-probe like the ones that are being tested in low Earth orbit. (Breakthrough Starshot via YouTube / SciNews)

Breakthrough Starshot says it’s been testing prototype interstellar spacecraft no bigger than postage stamps in orbit for the past month, and they seem to be working just fine.

Six of the 1.4-inch-square circuit boards, dubbed “Sprites,” were launched into low Earth orbit on June 23 as tiny piggyback payloads on two nanosatellites. Those educational satellites, Max Valier Sat and Venta 1, were developed with the aid of German-based OHB System and launched by an Indian PSLV rocket. (Seattle-based Spaceflight played a role in launch logistics.)

In a statement issued today, Breakthrough Starshot said the Sprites are still attached to the nanosatellites and are “performing as designed.” The Sprite radio communication system is in contact with ground stations in California and New York, as well as with amateur radio enthusiasts around the world.

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Here’s how to stop a speeding starship

Starshot mission
The aim of the Starshot project is to send a tiny spacecraft propelled by an enormous rectangular photon sail to the Alpha Centauri star system, as shown in this artist’s conception, (Planetary Habitability Laboratory, University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo)

Millions of dollars are being spent on a scheme to speed up swarms of tiny sail-equipped probes to 20 percent of the speed of light and send them past Alpha Centauri – but how do you slow them down again?

German researchers suggest using the same light sails that got the probes going so fast in the first place.

René Heller, an astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, and information technology specialist Michael Hippke worked out a plan could be factored into Breakthrough Starshot’s decades-long mission plan. The details are laid out today in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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VLT joins search for Alpha Centauri’s planets

VLT and Alpha Centauri
The ESO’s Very Large Telescope looms in the foreground of this image, and a star map has been superimposed on the sky to show the locations of Alpha Centauri and Proxima Centauri. (ESO Photo)

One of the most powerful observing instruments on Earth, the Very Large Telescope, will join the search for potentially habitable planets around the Alpha Centauri star system.

The survey will take place in 2019 under the terms of an agreement signed by the European Southern Observatory, which operates the VLT in Chile, and by the Breakthrough Initiatives.

The Breakthrough Initiatives are funded by such luminaries as Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The effort includes in a radio search for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations, known as Breakthrough Listen; and a plan to send swarms of nano-probes through the Alpha Centauri system, known as Breakthrough Starshot.

For months, the Breakthrough team has been working out the details for a campaign to look for worlds around Alpha Centauri, informally known as Breakthrough Watch. Such observations would complement Breakthrough Starshot.

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How to shield a probe for trip to Alpha Centauri

Image: Starshot nano-probe
An artist’s conception suggests how light from a battery of laser-equipped antennas can power a sail to the Alpha Centauri system. (Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives)

The scientists behind the Breakthrough Starshot mission are already fine-tuning the design for their nano-probes to increase the odds they’ll survive the trip to Proxima Centauri b.

In a paper posted to the arXiv pre-print server last week, researchers lay out their latest calculations on the kinds of damage their scaled-down spacecraft could face as they speed toward the Alpha Centauri system at 20 percent of the speed of light.

The mission and the study have taken on greater importance, due to this week’s announcement that a potentially habitable planet has been detected in orbit around Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf that’s part of the star system. It’s the star that’s closest to our own solar system, lying only 4.2 light-years away.

In astronomical terms, Proxima Centauri is right next door. But in mission planning terms, it’s far, far away. It would take tens of thousands of years for a conventional spacecraft to get there.

To reduce that time frame, Breakthrough Starshot has proposed sending bunches of lightweight electronic wafers, known as “Starchips.” The Starchips would be accelerated to relativistic speeds by aiming powerful lasers at film-thin light sails that carry the probes along.

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$100 million pledged for Alpha Centauri mission

Image: Light sail propulsion
An artist’s conception shows how a laser beam could propel a light sail outward toward Alpha Centauri. (Credit: Breakthrough Starshot)

Fueled by an initial $100 million from Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, a team laden with big names laid out a multi-decade plan to send flurries of smartphone-sized probes to the Alpha Centauri system, powered by laser-driven light sails.

“For the first time in human history, we can do more than just gaze at the stars,” Milner said today at a New York news conference where the Breakthrough Starshot project was unveiled. “We can actually reach them. It is time to launch the next great leap in human history.”

Eventually, the plan will require billions of dollars more in funding – and much more planning as well. But the Starshot team boasts some top-drawer supporters: In addition to Milner, the board includes British physicist Stephen Hawking and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

During the news briefing, Hawking noted that life on Earth faces risks ranging from asteroid strikes to human-caused catastrophes. “If we are to survive as a species, we must ultimately spread to the stars,” he said.

The project’s executive director is Pete Worden, who previously headed NASA’s Ames Research Center. Today he said he’s already spoken with NASA officials about the plan. “They’re very eager to support us,” he told reporters.

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