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These chip-sized spacecraft are the smallest space probes yet

Prototypes ride on satellites in low Earth orbit to test how their circuitry fares in space

By
1:30pm, August 22, 2017
diagram of Sprite

THE ITSY-BITSY SPACECRAFT  Prototypes of tiny spacecraft called Sprites are being tested in low Earth orbit. Similarly tiny probes may someday fly to Alpha Centauri.

Spacecraft have gone bite-sized. On June 23, Breakthrough Starshot, an initiative to send spacecraft to another star system, launched half a dozen probes called Sprites to test how their electronics fare in outer space. Each Sprite, built on a single circuit board, is a prototype of the tiny spacecraft that Starshot scientists intend to send to Alpha Centauri, the trio of stars closest to the sun. Those far-flung probes would be the smallest working spacecraft yet.

“We’re talking about launching things that are a thousand times lighter than any previous spacecraft,” says Avi Loeb, an astrophysicist at Harvard University who is part of the committee advising the initiative. A Sprite is only 3.5 centimeters square and weighs four grams, but packs a solar panel, radio, thermometer, magnetometer for compass capabilities and gyroscope for sensing rotation.

These spacecraft are designed to fly

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