Credit: UCSB/Lubin


One small, high-flying step toward interstellar travel!

Last month, UC Santa Barbara students sent up, via balloon, a prototype miniature spacecraft designed to further interplanetary and eventually interstellar flight.

“It’s part of a process of building for the future, and along the way you test each part of the system to refine it,” said UC Santa Barbara physics professor and experimental cosmologist Philip Lubin.

Credit: UCSB/Lubin/Screengrab Inside Outer Space

Wafer scale spacecraft

The prototype wafer scale spacecraft (WSS) is small enough to fit in the palm of one hand. It was launched into the stratosphere above Pennsylvania, to an altitude of 105,000 feet (32 km) — three times that of commercial airplanes — to gauge its functionality and performance.

The launch was conducted in collaboration with the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis on April 12, 2019 — 58 years to the day that Russian cosmonaut and pilot Yuri Gagarin became the first human to complete orbital space flight.

The spacecraft prototype worked flawlessly and collected more than 4,000 images of the Earth.

“It was designed to have many of the functions of much larger spacecraft, such as imaging, data transmission, including laser communications, attitude determination and magnetic field sensing,” said Nic Rupert, a development engineer in Lubin’s lab. “Due to the rapid advancements in microelectronics we can shrink a spacecraft into a much smaller format than has been done before for specialized applications such as ours.”

Artist rendering of the Directed Energy Interstellar Study.
Credits: P. Lubin


The project’s is to build an ultra-lightweight (gram scale) silicon wafer with embedded electronics, capable of being shot into space by way of directed energy propulsion while relaying data back to Earth.

Part of a NASA-funded endeavor called Starlight, the effort is supported also by the Breakthrough Foundation, where it is known as Starshot. UC Santa Barbara initiated the project in 2009 with modest funding from NASA’s Spacegrant program, receiving additional funds in 2015 via NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.

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For more information, go to this story by Sonia Fernandez in UCSB’s The Current:

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