iPhone-sized probes could reach star 25,000,000,000,000 miles away from Earth

Travelling to other star systems is likely to remain science fiction for a very long to come.

The distances involved are so huge that even our fastest spacecraft would take thousands of years to reach even the nearest stars to our Sun.

But a groundbreaking initiative using spacecraft powered not by rockets, but by lasers, could potentially take a fleet of spacecraft to our nearest star within one human lifetime.

The craft could used to perform a fly-by of Proxima Centauri, sending back data about its potentially habitable planets.

There’s just one catch: the spacecraft will be smaller than an iPhone.

The project, called Breakthrough Starshot, will enable a swarm of wafter-thin craft carrying cameras, navigation, and communication equipment together with a tiny power supply and a large “sail” made of reflective material.

The mini-starships would be propelled into orbit inside a traditional rocket booster, before being deployed and accelerated to up to 20 per cent of the speed of light using an ultra-powerful laser trained on their sails.

At those speeds, they could potentially reach the Alpha Centauri system in about 20 years.

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Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, was one of the project’s early supporters of the Breakthrough concept is based on technology either already available or likely to be available in the near future,” he said in 2016. “But as with any moonshot, there are major hurdles to be solved.”

The biggest challenge would be building a laser powerful enough for the job. The original Breakthrough Starshot project called for a 100-gigawatt laser array half a mile across, more powerful than anything yet constructed.

But Artur Davoyan, a materials scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, says that a slightly less powerful, but still incredibly fast fleet of ships could be launched almost immediately.

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"Such lasers can be built already today with a relatively small investment," he told Space.com. "We do not need to wait till a 100-gigawatt laser becomes available."

Artur’s plan calls for a ground-based laser array just 33 feet across, with a power output somewhere between 100 kilowatts and 10 megawatts.

In a paper published earlier this year, Artur also proposes a slightly larger probe.

While the original Starshot spec called for significant advances in nanotechnology to pack all of the spacecraft’s data gathering technology onto a microchip no bigger than a fingernail, Artur’s proposal envisions a device weighing about three ounces and roughly the size of a mobile phone.

The mission would also use multiple devices launched at once – partly because some of the tiny craft would inevitably be destroyed by micro-meteors and other interstellar hazards. Artur envisions a flotilla of craft all with slightly different abilities.

"For example, one may be a magnetometer probe, another equipped with a camera, the third serving as a particle detector," he says. "We foresee that many small probes can be sent to really different destinations to do breakthrough science."

It’s not just science fiction. Some of the underlying technology has already been tested.

Tiny mini-probes similar to the Starshot devices were taken to the International Space Station in 2018. The miniature craft were deployed and successfully transmitted data back to base before burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

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