The 'wafercraft' (also known as "StarChip") is a very small ship prototype, a spacecraft the size of a human hand, composed of a laser-propelled sail a tiny wafer, could reach the nearest star system (Proxima Centauri) in 20 years of travel if, as intended, it reaches relativistic speeds (a portion of the speed of light): up to 20% the speed of light.
The StarChip is being developed at the University of California Santa Barbara. So far, a prototype has already been sent through a balloon to the stratosphere to test its functionality and performance. The test consisted of launching the prototype on board a balloon at an altitude of 32,000 meters.
The sail component is based on the concept of a solar candle and developments made with lightweight materials. To make its tiny size possible, the design renounces any kind of propulsion fuel. As explained by the team engineer Nic Rupert:
If you have a large enough laser matrix, you can actually push the wafers with a laser candle to reach our goal of 20 percent of the speed of light. Then you would be at Alpha Centauri in about 20 years.
The purpose is to answer one of humanity's greatest existential questions: are we alone in the universe? And one way to find out, according to the researchers, is to visit nearby exoplanets by sending a multitude of these small spaceships to neighboring star systems. These chips would contain nanoscale cameras, navigation equipment, communications technology and other systems to search for nearby exoplanets beyond our solar system in search of evidence of life.