KickSat would launch members' nanosatellites into space for a few hundred bucks


October 25, 2011

One of the Sprite nanosatellites (Photo: KickSat)

One of the Sprite nanosatellites (Photo: KickSat)

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Pssst, do you wanna buy a satellite? No, really - do you? Well, Zac Manchester would like to sell you one. Not only that, but he claims that the thing could be built and launched into orbit for just a few hundred dollars. For that price, however, you're not going to be getting a big satellite. Manchester's Sprite spacecraft are actually about the size of a couple of postage stamps, but they have tiny versions of all the basic equipment that the big ones have.

Zac is a graduate student in Aerospace Engineering at Cornell University, and was part of the team that originally designed the Sprites for use as space probes - the idea being that they could travel on solar winds, like cosmic dust, traveling deep into space without the need for fuel. Three of the one-square-inch spacecraft were delivered to the International Space Station this May, to see how they how well they could stand up to the rigors of outer space. They are currently still mounted on the outside of the station, and are due to be brought back to Earth in a couple of years.

Each Sprite incorporates a Texas Instruments MSP430 microcontroller, a radio transceiver, solar cells, capacitors and antenna. In their current incarnation, they can't do much more than transmit simple bits of data, but Manchester says that future versions could easily include sensors such as thermometers or cameras.

A small box-like satellite - or CubeSat - would be used to carry the Sprites into low-altitude orbit. It could contain hundreds or even thousands of spring-loaded Sprites, which would shoot out as soon as the CubeSat's lid was opened from ground control via a radio signal.

Once in orbit, the Sprites' transmitted radio signals would be monitored by a network of amateur ground-based tracking stations. The aim would be to demonstrate their communications capabilities, while also observing how long they remained in orbit, and how well they were able to perform in outer space. They should all burn up when they re-enter the earth's atmosphere, within a few days or weeks of their release.

Manchester is now raising funds for the demonstration project via the Kickstarter fund-raising website. Depending on how much money is raised, his team will either have to wait for a spot on one of several free launch programs, or be able to purchase a commercial launch of their own. If they are able to purchase a launch, he is hoping for the Sprites to be in orbit by early 2013.

Yes, but how do you get to call one of them your own? By contributing US$300 via Kickstarter, that's how. Such a donation will allow you to name one of the Sprites, specify the four-character message that it will transmit (such as your initials), and track it on the KickSat website. A donation of $1,000 or more will put an actual physical Sprite in your hands, and provide you with the source code and programming tools to write its custom flight code. Should you wish to set up your own ground station, you will also be instructed on how to receive and interpret its radio signal.

Groups are also encouraged to sponsor fleets of Sprites, each one of which will bear that group's logo on its lilliputian surface.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

what the world needs is more space garbage to disable real satellites and space ships.. Even these tiny objects traveling at tens of thousands of kilometers an hour are real missiles..


Like the idea of micro-sats bundled up into one larger cubesat BUT NOT AS A STREAM OF INDIVIDUAL SATS.

This would be reminiscent of Pthe Project Ford \'space needles\' (a disaster).

But,yep,go for a cubesat for of \'em !


Facebook User

Geeze Loueeeze!! Didn't it just say in the article that these would be in a low Earth orbit, from where they would fall back down to BURN UP in a few days or weeks?!?!


Expanded Viewpoint

I think these should all be tethered to a central satellite, not thrown out into space like a bunch of throwing stars travelling at a million miles per hour...

Will Sharp

Those solar cells look like EPROMs. It's possible to generate a tiny amount of electricity with an EPROM. IIRC if you connect a voltmeter to the Vcc and Vcc- pins then expose the window on top to sunlight the meter will read a fraction of a volt.

Daisy chain enough EPROMs together and you'll have enough to power something like an LED or a really low power microcontroller. It's something to experiment with using defective EPROMs. BIOS chips from old PC motherboards can be used for this, the ones before they had flash-programmable EEPROMs. Has to be the ultraviolet erasable type with the clear window over the chip.

Gregg Eshelman
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