A bright arrow lines up in the south and southeast at dawn tomorrow. The crescent Moon forms the arrow’s feathers, with the shaft outlined by the equally spaced planets Jupiter and Mars, to the upper right of the Moon. The star Spica forms the arrow’s tip.
Spacecraft have successfully visited the Moon and the two planets — dozens to the Moon, a couple of dozen to Mars, and almost 10 to Jupiter.
Spica, on the other hand, is a different story. It’s about 250 light-years away — millions of times farther than Mars and Jupiter. At that distance, it would take millions of years for a conventional spacecraft to reach Spica. In fact, it would take hundreds of thousands of years to reach even the closest star system.
That doesn’t mean that no one is trying to get there, though. A project called Breakthrough Starshot is working on plans to send a postage-stamp-sized craft to the Alpha Centauri system, our closest stellar neighbors. Although tiny, the craft would carry a camera, a radio transmitter, and other key equipment.
The project launched some test probes in July. They remained in Earth orbit, attached to larger satellites. They consisted of single circuit boards that measured about an inch-and-a-half on each side. They carried their own power systems, transmitters, solar panels, and sensors.
Known as Sprites, they mark a beginning in the effort to leave our own solar system — and take the first big step toward the stars.
Script by Damond Benningfield