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Yuri Milner with 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.

The Sprite concept is the brainchild of Breakthrough Starshot’s Zack Manchester, who came up with the idea for super-miniaturized space probes back in 2011, in connection with the crowdfunded KickSat space mission. Researchers at Cornell University constructed the chips for this summer’s test.

“Eventually, every mission that NASA does may carry these sorts of nanocraft to perform various measurements,” Pete Worden, Breakthrough Starshot’s executive director and former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, told Scientific American.

Breakthrough Starshot aims to miniaturize spacecraft technology even further, developing a new breed of instrument-laden StarChips that will measure about a centimeter (0.4 inch) wide and weigh about a gram (0.035 ounces).

The Breakthrough mission plan calls for sending thousands of StarChips into space, and then aiming an array of ground-based lasers at the probes’ attached light sails to push them toward the Alpha Centauri star system.

Organizers of the effort, including Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and British physicist Stephen Hawking, say the StarChips should be able to make the trip to Alpha Centauri in just over 20 years, at a maximum speed of about 20 percent of the speed of light.

The StarChips would be designed to send back readings about the Alpha Centauri system, including any planets that are detected there. One planet, Proxima Centauri b, already has been detected.

Breakthrough Starshot is part of a wider alien-hunting initiative that also includes a search for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations. Milner provided an initial $100 million in funding for the Starshot program last year, but the effort is expected to require billions of dollars eventually.

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