It’ll look like hundreds of postage stamps fluttering toward Earth — each an independent satellite transmitting a signal unique to the person who helped send it to space.
A Cornell-based project called KickSat is set to launch more than 200 of these tiny satellites, nicknamed “sprites,” into low-Earth orbit as part of a routine NASA-administered mission in 2013 to the International Space Station. And unlike traditional, big government space exploration, KickSat is truly a launch by the people.
Several years ago…Zac Manchester…now a graduate student in aerospace engineering, dreamt up the idea of crowd-sourced, personal space exploration. He and Ryan Zhou…and Justin Atchison…designed and built a prototype spacecraft that fits in the palm of the hand and costs just a few hundred dollars to make. The sprites are a type of micro-satellite called a “ChipSat…”
Manchester’s goal, he says in his blog about the mission, “is to bring down the huge cost of spaceflight, allowing anyone from a curious high school student or basement tinkerer to a professional scientist to explore what has until now been the exclusive realm of governments and large companies. By shrinking the spacecraft, we can fit more into a single launch slot and split the costs many ways. I want to make it easy enough and affordable enough for anyone to explore space.”
Sprites are the size of a cracker but are outfitted with solar cells, a radio transceiver and a microcontroller (tiny computer). KickSat, which is the name of the sprites’ launching unit, is a CubeSat, a standardized cubic satellite the size of a loaf of bread, frequently used in space research.
Using Kickstarter.com to find sponsors for the mission, Manchester raised nearly $75,000 as more than 300 people sponsored a sprite that will transmit an identifying signal, such as the initials of the donor. In 2013, about 250 sprites will be sent into space. One person, who donated $10,000, Manchester added, will get to “push the big red button” on the day of the launch.
A delightful dedication to citizen science. A special tradition centuries-old.