ISRO puts ‘Interstellar’ spacecraft into orbit that can take us to another star someday

ISRO has put tiny interstellar spacecraft, also known as sprites, into orbit; and they are the smallest that the world has ever seen.

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The tiny 'Sprite' spacecraft, created by the Breakthrough Starshot program measure just 3.5-by-3.5 centimetres, and weigh only 4 grams.

ISRO, on June 23 had launched the PSLV C38 from Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC) SHAR, Sriharikota. The launch vehicle mainly carried the 712 kg Cartosat-2 series satellite for earth observation, but it also had 30 more satellites on board. Among the 30 smaller satellites, were 6 prototypes of interstellar spacecraft. The tiny interstellar spacecraft are also known as sprites, and they are the smallest that the world has seen. A report in Times of India said that Russian billionaire investor Yuri Milner and famous cosmologist Stephen Hawking are together working on an ambitious project called Breakthrough Startshot, and the six small sprites are a part of that research. ISRO has aided in the multi billion dollar project by launching the working prototype versions of the smallest spacecraft ever conceived, and also putting it into orbit.

The tiny ‘Sprite’ spacecraft, created by the Breakthrough Starshot program and funded through a 2011 Kickstarter campaign, measure just 3.5-by-3.5 centimetres, and weigh only four grams. The smallest spacecraft ever launched are successfully travelling in low Earth orbit and communicating with systems on Earth. These tiny space-borne Sprites are designed to help pave the way for even smaller single-chip spacecraft. The launch of the prototypes is a big step for Breakthrough Starshot, an ambitious initiative to send a fleet of interstellar spacecraft to Alpha Centauri, driven by lasers. On its website, Breakthrough Starshot describes its aim as: “Breakthrough Starshot aims to demonstrate proof of concept for ultra-fast light-driven nano crafts, and lay the foundations for a first launch to Alpha Centauri within the next generation. Along the way, the project could generate important supplementary benefits to astronomy, including solar system exploration and detection of Earth-crossing asteroids.”

While Sprites have previously been carried on board the International Space Station, this is the first demonstration that it is possible to launch such a lightweight miniaturised satellite into space and communicate with it. While this is a prototype, and the distances are massive, the challenge to reach starts is huge in front of the world. We are a long way out to the eventual goal, but projects like these are certainly setting precedents here.

The idea is that by sending such tiny spacecraft to planets orbiting nearby stars, it will be possible to collect data which could help to shed light on the possibility of life beyond Earth. The first aim to reach our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri. In this system, there is a star called Proxima Centauri which in turn contains the planet Proxima b. This planet has been very interesting for scientists all over the world, because it contains similar features like earth, raising questions of possible ‘extra terrestrial life’.

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First published on: 31-07-2017 at 12:50 IST