Credit Card Sized Spacecraft Poised to Sail to Alpha Centauri

As a space-faring species, we’ve done a fair job of exploring and exploiting our local neighborhood. We’re pretty good at putting people and machines into orbit, but our galactic-scale signature is pretty tiny. Our radio signals are no more than 100 light-years away, and our farthest physical artifact isn’t even a light-day away from us 40 years after it launched.

Clearly we need to do a better job of getting out there, and that’s the goal of Breakthrough Initiatives’ Starshot program, which aims to launch a nano-spacecraft to Alpha Centauri and get it there fast. The program aims to build solar-powered credit card-sized spacecraft with sensors, cameras, communications, and even MEMS thrusters for attitude control. Motive power will come from solar sails catching laser light shined onto it from Earth, eventually accelerating the craft to 20% of the speed of light and reaching its destination within a generation.

The thought that we could start spreading ourselves out into the galaxy within the lifespan of most of the people on Earth is intoxicating. Sure, a wafer of silicon is a far cry from a sleek starship with powerful warp engines and all the finest appointments, or a gritty star freighter that can make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. But the laws of physics and the limits of engineering conspire to keep us mostly stuck at the bottom of a deep gravity well, and if this means sending fleets of nanobots across the galaxy in our stead, so be it.

And no matter what form our first galactic spacecraft take, you can bet that the Deep Space Network will be supporting the mission. For now, you can listen in on the program’s test satellites currently in orbit if you tune to 437.240 MHz.

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Magnetically actuated microbots


The Carnegie Mellon NanoRobotics Lab uses external magnetic fields to precisely control their nanosoccer players. The micro robots are just 300×300 micron specs of neodymium-iron-boron permanent magnets that have been laser machined. The working volume is surrounded by five electromagnetic coils. Four coils are used for position while the fifth provides clamping force to the work surface. The bot can be operated almost anywhere as long as the surface isn’t magnetically active. Machine vision is used to watch the bot and provide feedback control. Embedded below is the robot moving across a glass slide next to a dime. It can travel at speeds up to 60 body lengths per second.

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