“ChipSats” (test) are palm-sized computers—and the world’s smallest spacecraft when they fly solo! In Alpha’s case, we’re attaching the ChipSats to our light sail, where they’ll function as flight computers.

ChipSats contain all the radio communications, sensors, and power systems the sail needs. This allows Alpha’s sail to disconnect from the CubeSat that deployed it, making it the world’s first free-flying light sail!

Why is this important? We need extremely lightweight sails if we ever hope to reach Alpha Centauri at 20% the speed of light. Lightweight sails call for lightweight computers!

Cornell’s Space Systems Design Studio has been developing ChipSats since 2006. The “Monarch” is its latest design, increasingly thinner but slightly wider (now 5 by 5 centimeters, compared to 3 by 3 “Sprites”).

The electronics are printed on Kapton substrate, a flexible material allowing the chips to be under 3 grams each. Alpha’s ChipSats are an important step along the way to interstellar computers weighing less than a gram. On Alpha’s sailing mission, the ChipSats will take position, altitude, and gyroscope measurements, then send the data back to Earth through a radio transmitter.

an image of the chipsat

ChipSats Past and Present

The ChipSats in the photo above reflect over a decade of evolution! The first “Sprite” model on the left joined the Endeavor space shuttle's final flight in 2011, and was mounted to the International Space Station to collect data. The ChipSats survived all three years they were mounted in space.

2014 saw the first attempt to deploy ChipSats solo in space. Unfortunately, the “KickSat” deployer failed to deploy the ChipSats before it reentered Earth’s atmosphere. KickSat’s creator, Zac Manchester, was not to be stopped. He and NASA Ames tried again in 2019. The dark green “KickSat-2” model in the middle is identical to the 105 ChipSats they released from low Earth orbit. This mission proved that ChipSats could survive on their own in space, as well as send data back to Earth.

With adjustments courtesy of Hunter Adams, the final ChipSat on the right is just a few radio modifications away from the kind on Alpha’s light sail. And in the future? ChipSats the size of your fingertip may be speeding toward other stars, beaming data back through lasers!


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