Spaceflight Insider

Could Breakthrough Starshot be humanity’s first interstellar mission?

Breakthrough Starshot spacecraft on its way to Alpha Centauri: Image Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives

Artist’s impression of Breakthrough Starshot spacecraft on its way to Alpha Centauri. Image Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives

In the NewSpace era, one hears all manner of predictions and brash claims, but few come to fruition. Most of these efforts see Chapter 11 before they ever take to the skies. One program, dubbed Breakthrough Starshot, is looking to send mankind’s space exploration efforts far beyond the Solar System by using the world’s smallest spacecraft.

On June 23, 2017, these spacecraft, called “Sprites”, which were funded through a 2011 Kickstarter campaign, were launched atop a PSLV-XL rocket. Well, actually, they piggybacked on OHB System AG’s “Max Valier” and “Venta” satellites.

These spacecraft redefine the meaning of the word “small”, encompassing 3.5-by-3.5 centimeters and weighing in at a whopping four grams. The company described the craft as “the world’s smallest fully functional space probes”.

“Eventually, every mission that NASA does may carry these sorts of nanocraft to perform various measurements,” Starshot’s Zac Manchester said via a company-issued release. “If you’re looking for evidence of life on Mars or anywhere else, for instance, you can afford to use hundreds or thousands of these things – it doesn’t matter that a lot of them might not work perfectly. It’s a revolutionary capability that will open up all sorts of opportunities for exploration.”

Breakthrough Starshot 'Sprite' spacecraft

A prototype Breakthrough Starshot “Sprite” spacecraft. (Click to enlarge) Photo Credit: Zac Manchester / Breakthrough Initiatives

The company has caught the attention of Scientific American and other established organizations.

Despite its diminutive size, these Sprites have what they need to get the job done – each contains solar panels, computers, sensors, and radios that will allow them to carry out their various functions.

With engineers looking for ever smaller classifications to describe spacecraft by (“cube”, “small”, and “nano” being just some of the names that have been used to help classify these satellites), the company has dubbed Sprites as “the next step” in terms of spacecraft miniaturization. Built at Cornell University and incorporated into the Max Valier and Venta satellites (built by the Bremen-based OHB System AG), the Sprite is Manchester’s pride and joy.

These Sprites remain affixed to the satellites and could, one day, be used to explore further than mankind has been able to explore so far. By all accounts, these Sprites are performing as advertised, communicating back to stations located in California and New York. While having satellites piggyback their way to orbit is nothing new, this flight is meant to validate the spacecraft communications systems.

These systems would (most likely) be first used in three-dimensional antennas in deep space to monitor space weather that could threaten Earthly power-grids and orbiting spacecraft. So how would these Sprites enable interstellar space exploration?

Larger interplanetary probes would deploy “swarms” of Sprites around planets, moons, and asteroids. These would seek out promising locales that could contain desirable minerals or locations that could support life.

Breakthrough Starshot is just one of the efforts under Breakthrough Initiatives (which also includes Breakthrough Listen) and was announced by Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking on April 12, 2016 (the same day of the month that Yuri Gagarin began his fateful voyage and the crew of STS-1 launched from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A).

The project is an engineering program designed to prove the concept of spacecraft which would be propelled by light and accelerated to about 20 percent of light speed and reach Proxima Centauri 4.2 light-years away in just over 20 years after their launch. The craft would target the exoplanet Proxima b and other planets in our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri. If everything goes as planned, the craft would capture images as well as measurements of those distant worlds.

“Breakthrough Starshot, the $100 million initiative aiming to send robotic missions to nearby stars by the mid-21st century, has achieved what might prove to be a ‘Sputnik moment’ in successfully lofting its first spacecraft – the smallest ever launched and operated in orbit,” Manchester said.

Video courtesy of Breakthrough



Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

“Larger interplanetary probes would deploy “swarms” of Sprites around planets, moons, and asteroids.”

How many of these would make up one Huygens probe that was sent to Titan? How can this be implemented with Europa and Enceladus missions planned in the future? Very enticing.

Gary Warburton

Interesting concept. Would the spite have the power to send a signal back to earth. I had thought it could send its signals to following Spites but they wouldn`t be able to receive or send signals because they wouldn`t be powered by starlight. How would these Spites orient themselves to receive sunlight or to view objects at the system it was viewing would it have thrusters? I would appreciate more information if it is availiable.

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