Kick Yourself into Orbit!

Ah, I’ve only been out a few months, but I already miss some things about being in grad school! For instance, I miss all the crazy brainstorming of new and wild space systems, missions, and technologies. No doubt you, dear reader, also miss my crazy brainstorming: after all, that is how I ended up writing blogs about space battles or missions to Europa or what the Earth would look like with rings or the science of Avatar. Now I have an industry job where people tend to care more about “affordability” and “reliability” and “performance,” than they do about harebrained schemes to drop space probes into the Europan ocean.

But, fear not, intrepid reader who has been sticking it out hoping for another crazy notion to appear here! You see, my research group at Cornell is still working at churning out wild ideas. And you can participate!

Check out this message from Zac, who was starting his Ph.D. as I was on my way out:

Zac has set up a page on KickStarter, which you can jump to by visiting KickSat.org. The idea behind KickSat is to make a bare-bones 10x10x10 cm CubeSat which contains hundreds or thousands of microchip-sized satellites called Sprites and will deploy them all in low Earth orbit. The KickStarter platform means that, if you want, you can sponsor your very own Sprite – Zac has even defined a sponsorship level at which you get to write your own flight code for the tiny spacecraft to run in orbit!

The spacecraft, which each could fit comfortably in the palm of your hand, are very simplistic as far as spacecraft go – they consist of solar cells to charge a little bank of capacitors, a teeny TI processor for a brain, and a little antenna. These are proof-of-concept spacecraft, and are actually derived from three test units which my lab group sent up to the Space Station on the last launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour! In the future, they hope to integrate other sensors onto the chips to give Sprites more capabilities. One of the ideas batted around during lab meetings that I consider a personal favorite: put “lab-on-chip” detectors on a Sprite to look for characteristic organic compounds (like nucleic acids!) and program them to simply send a chirp back if they get a positive result. Send a million Sprites to Mars, and listen to the peeps – and then you know where on the Red Planet the next big flagship mission has just got to go!

Imagine if you got the shot at writing the flight code. If you could put a solar cell in space and make it beep, what could you measure? How creative can you get in getting the Sprite’s whisper of a radio signal to carry information? Could you receive enough data to tell how fast the chip is spinning and seeing the Sun, or how much average power it has to work with, or how long it lasts before an errant proton from the solar wind blasts your Sprite out of the sky? The chance to put your own code on a spacecraft, even such a simplistic one, offers a lot of learning opportunities.

(Incidentally: one question that Zac and his research advisor, Dr. Mason Peck, get a lot is some variation on: “Hey, paint flecs moving at orbital velocity are enough to crash through the Space Shuttle windows. Aren’t these Sprites going to become dangerous space junk?” The answer is that yes, the Sprites could be hazardous as long as they are in orbit; but the orbit that KickSat will reach is going to be within just enough of the Earth’s atmosphere that all the Sprites will get dragged down in a couple days. The special property Sprites have that influences this fast orbital decay – and other effects – is a high surface-area-to-mass ratio.)

KickSat has already reached its minimum fundraising goal to start building hardware. However, the project is still looking for more backers to secure a commercial launch opportunity, which will offer more certainty than applying for a free launch program through NASA. But if Zac gets to about $300,000 of funding, he thinks that will be enough to start looking at new technologies to shrink the Sprite chips down to even smaller sizes – and offer even more capability in the future!

Cool stuff. I’m glad to see the Cornell Space Systems Design Studio keeping the wild space ideas flowing!

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