Last month, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched its PSLV-C38 mission into space. While the main payload in this mission was a CartoSat-2 series satellite, several other smaller satellites were also piggybacking on the ride due to availability of additional space. The New Scientist explained that these satellites, six were the small prototypes of small Interstellar Spacecraft—or sprites—the first to be launched into orbit by humans. Scientists reveal that one of these six sprites has managed to establish contact with ground stations, becoming the smallest spacecraft ever to do so.

Breakthrough Starshot project

The six sprites sent into space are part of the highly ambitious, multi-million dollar Breakthrough Starshot research project being funded by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and supported by cosmologist Stephen Hawking. Breakthrough Starshot project aims to send a fleet of sprites to Alpha Centauri—our neighboring star system located about 4.37 light-years away from Earth.

Scientists involved with this project claim that these sprites, driven by lasers, will reach Alpha Centauri at speeds of between 15 percent and 20 percent of light. Even with such a great speed, it will take a little more than 20 years for a sprite to reach Alpha Centauri. Once there, these sprites will capture images of the star and its planet Proxima b, and send these images to scientists on Earth.

Scientists believe it will be possible to produce and launch thousands of sprites to study Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere, and this could become a reality within next decade. Breakthrough Starshot would also like to achieve some bigger aims later by sending such spacecraft deeper into the cosmos.

Each sprite measures just 3.5 cm on each side

Each Sprite weighs just 4 grams and measures 3.5 cm on each side. The total cost to build a sprite is $25. Appearing like a postage stamp, a sprite carries with it different Sensors, solar panels, radio equipment and computers on a single circuit board. The sensors on each circuit board will enable scientists to track their movement in space.

Four of the six sprites launched in space last month were attached to the Italian Max Valier satellite, while the remaining two were attached to the sides of the Latvian Venta-1 nanosatellite. According to scientists, one of two sprites attached to Venta-1 nanosatellite managed to establish contact with ground stations. The Max Valier satellite has not yet established a connection with its controllers. Once it establishes a link with Earth stations, the remaining four satellites will be released into space to orbit on their own.