Project Starshot, a project to send a swarm of tiny, nano-sized probes to Alpha Centauri, caused a stir when it was announced in April 2016. Now Engadget reports that NASA has joined the effort by developing a crucial bit of technology that will keep these tiny devices functioning as they cross the interstellar gulfs.

Starshot imagines propelling a swarm of nanoprobes attached to tiny light sails with a massive, ground based laser.

The tiny probes would have cameras and other instruments necessary to get them to the Alpha Centauri system and then start transmitting images. The voyage would take 20 years. The distance between Alpha Centauri and Earth is so vast that four and a half years would pass before the first images arrive once the probes arrive. Much of the technology to conduct the mission does not yet exist. The purpose of Starshot is as much to develop that tech, which would have endless applications on Earth, as it is to conduct the mission.

NASA’s role in the project has to do with the damage radiation in Space can have on electronics. Because the nanoprobes have to be incredibly light, radiation shielding is out of the question. The space agency has hit upon self-healing electronics as a way to get around this danger. NASA has teamed with researchers from the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) to develop the chips that repair themselves when they are damaged by cosmic radiation.

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NASA’s first practical foray into an interstellar space mission is, as befits the time, in the role of a partner in a private effort. Starshot is being funded by a number of Internet moguls such as Yuri Milner and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Stephen Hawking is a participant. Pete Worden, the former director of NASA Ames, is leading the project. The goal of the mission is to find an Earth-like planet in the habitable zone of Alpha Centauri and return detail images.

Starshot is not the only private project aimed at finding a new Earth orbiting Alpha Centauri. Project Blue is raising funds to build a planet-finding telescope specifically designed to find such a world.

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