Interstellar space travel, that is travel to another star system or travel between galaxies, is the stuff that sci-fi fantasies are made of. Remember ‘Interstellar’-the 2014 sci-fi movie where volunteers travel across galaxies in search of a new home for earthlings?
What seemed like a distant dream couple of years back, is now tantalizingly within grasp of space scientists,thanks to ISRO’s recent path-breaking feat. In a spectacular move, ISRO has launched into space, six prototypes of interstellar spacecraft, called sprites- a key step in mankind’s efforts to reach Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to Earth. Alpha Centauri is 4.37 light years away from Earth.
The $100 millionproject, named ‘Breakthrough Starshot’, is funded by Russian billionaire, physicist and venture capitalist, YuriMilner. Breakthrough Starshot is also backed by noted physicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking.
The spacecraft were launched via the Indian Space Research Organisation’s PSLV C38 satellite launch vehicle. India’s Cartosat-2 satellite was the main payload of this particular launch, along with 29 nano-satellites from 14 countries. The ‘sprites’ piggybacked into low Earth orbit on two small educational nano-satellites- the Venta (commissioned by Latvia) and the Max Valier (commissioned by Italy).
With the launch, the ISRO has become a part of the path-breaking global project, one that aims to break the final frontier- travel between stars and galaxies.
While two of thesprites have already been deployed, four more await deployment inside the Max Valier. Cheeringly, one of the deployed sprites has already established radio contact with Earth-based ground stations, in California, New York, and also with amateur, independent radio buffs across the globe. This makes it the world’s smallest spacecraft to establish contact with Earth from space.
The unmanned spacecraft are tiny- each measures just 3.5 cm on each side, weighs 4 gm and is wafer thin- like a postage stamp. Each sprite is armed with tiny sensors, miniature solar panels, a computer made of a single circuit board, a tiny gyroscope and miniature radio equipment.
The launch of the sprites is a proof-of-concept exercise to test their feasibility, electronic performance and sustainability in space, and also to demonstrate the working of the unique radio equipment on board.
The next step in the ambitious and trailblazing project is the launch of ‘Starchips’- even tinier spacecraft, which will be propelled into deep space at 20% of the speed of light- that is 135 million mph. The eye-popping speed will be achieved by using an array of powerful lasers that will accelerate the starchips and give them sufficient momentum to carry on to Alpha Centauri.
The actual target within Alpha Centauri is the Proxima Centauri- a red dwarf star that’s about 1 trillion miles closer to Earth, than two other stars in the system. And within the Proxima Centauri is Proxima b- an Earth-like planet that revolves around the Proxima Centauri in its Goldilocks Zone- the habitable zone with conditions suitable enough to harbour life.Through this venture, scientists hope to capture images and collect information on Proxima b, find out whether it is worthy of being an alternate home for humankind.