Pocket Spacecraft wants to send thousands of personalized satellites to the Moon


July 3, 2013

The Scout satellite is light to act as a solar sail

The Scout satellite is light to act as a solar sail

Image Gallery (8 images)

Launching more than one satellite at a time is common practice these days, but what about packing thousands of satellites into a rocket and shooting them at the Moon? As part of a Kickstarter campaign, Pocket Spacecraft is offering the public the chance to send small disc satellites into space. These will then either flutter back to Earth from orbit or impact on the lunar surface. Based in Bristol, UK, Pocket Spacecraft plans to create thousands of tiny customized “Scout” satellites to be launched in a cubesat as a way of promoting low cost, mass space exploration.

Developed as an open source, open access project, the Scout is a disc 8 cm (3.2 in) in diameter and one-twentieth of a millimeter thick. It's made of polyimide, which is a polymer used for flexible electronic components, spacesuits, and solar sails. A nickel-titanium memory metal hoop holds it taut and acts as an antenna and it’s powered by commercial solar cells. The Scout supports components, sensors and instruments that are bonded to, or printed on, the polyimide, and the whole thing weighs well under a gram. When coated with a metallic film, it acts as a solar sail and Pocket Spacecraft claims that by being so light in relation to its area that, it can survive entering an atmosphere and flutter down.

The Scouts are to be launched in stacks of thousands inside the Interplanetary CubeSat Mothership. This five-kilogram (11 lb) spacecraft is based on a standard 3U cubesat and is designed to piggyback on commercial satellite launches. Once in orbit, it gets to its destination using either a solar sail or an electrolysis propulsion system that uses solar power to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, which can then be burned as propellant. Once the Mothership releases and photographs the satellites, it acts as a relay for satellite telemetry.

CAD image of the Interplanetary CubeSat Mothership

The idea behind the Kickstarter campaign is for the public to not only fund launching satellites, but to customize satellites in ways that range from having images or messages printed on them to customizing the hardware and software. Three quarters of the satellite surface can be customized with either single or multiple images, as well as by adding such components as a single pixel optical sensor, accelerometer, gyroscope, temperature sensor, and strain gauges. The backers use a web browser to indicate the modifications, which Pocket Spacecraft executes.

The Scout uses a standard Arduino development environment, and Pocket Spacecraft is developing a web-based integrated development environment for writing and testing code, and to test a modified pocket spacecraft in a virtual environment. Backers are also provided with a Pocket Mission Control app that allows them to follow the Mothership’s launch, and see their satellite’s telemetry, which is relayed by the Mothership or a ground station to the user’s smartphone. Using an augmented reality feature, they can hold up their smartphone and see where their spacecraft is in the sky.

Pledges starting at £99 (US$150) allow backers to send a Scout into Earth orbit, where it will re-enter the atmosphere, and for £199 ($300) the satellite goes to the Moon. The developers say they need at least 2,000 satellites backed for a launch, but would prefer over 8,000.

Slingshot orbit for sending the Mothership to the Moon

If sufficient backing can be found, the design of the Scout craft will be tested and then launched with a commercial satellite on a trajectory suitable for reaching, as a first target, the Moon. Some satellites, called Earth Scouts, will be released to test their ability to re-enter the atmosphere, and to see if they can be tracked and recovered. The rest, called Lunar Scouts, will be carried by the Mothership as it uses the propulsion system to put it into a Weak Stability Boundary (WSB) low-energy transfer orbit to slingshot the craft from a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) to the Moon in a voyage that will take months.

While in space, the Mothership will be tracked with two refurbished ground stations, and amateur radio enthusiasts will also help with tracking and data relay. Commercial, university and government tracking resources may also be used. Once in lunar orbit, the Lunar Scouts will be released to fall on the Moon surface in a high-speed impact.

“By backing this mission, people will revolutionize space exploration and space science,” says Michael Johnson, founder of Pocket Spacecraft. “By democratizing interplanetary space exploration we will create a generation of young explorers who can use the same affordable methods to explore Mars, Venus and beyond. We’re building tools so that one day every child will be able to send their own spacecraft on a robotic field trip in space”.

The Kickstarter campaign ends on August 26.

Sources: Pocket Spacecraft, Kickstarter

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past. All articles by David Szondy

We have filled our own planet with junk now where can we litter next?


More space junk?

Brendan Dunphy

You cannot be serious - we have messed up one planet [earth], littered near space with debris and now plan to litter the moon. Not really what we should be doing!

Simon Bebbington

Great idea! I want to put 40 meter tx on mine and broadcast a beacon using CW.


Crowd sourced littering. What an original idea ... maybe the disks could be colored green to make it OK.


Great. Automated space littering. (NOT!)

Gerard Wenham

I generally support any idea that broadens the public's view of science and the world but this is crowd sourced spattering of crap into a Low Earth Orbit where we already have an increasingly severe threat from debris. Even a speck of paint shaken off a booster can impact a satellite at several times the speed of sound. A better re-imagined idea would be to crowd source a single satellite to orbit and land on the moon. If it works, we get some great pics, if it lawndarts the moon there is no real injury.


Nice to see all the comments line up. Let's clean up this place before we mess up another ... forever.


hello. Terrific way to raise funding. No verification of ever delivering to moon orbit. Perhaps encapsulating these disc satellites, and enshrining them on the surface of the moon, during the next moon mission: would satisfy every investor. Raise more investment for a rocket. I will administrate the foundation.


Nutcase the radio ham says yes yes yes. Nutcase the pollution fighter says no no no.


Great, now its crowd sourced insanity!! The committee that came up with this one, need their 'micro brains' scattered across the moon. It will never get off the ground (pun intended)


As ridiculous as this concept is, it does remind us that miniaturization and robotization are the future. With the processing power and features of an ordinary cell phone, there's no excuse for science's lackluster lunar exploration strategies. With 1/6th our gravity, a lightweight solar powered vehicle should be capable of charging, flying, doing its specialized function, falling back with no damage, recharging and repeating its designated cycle of duties for years. Face it, folks, NASA and its free market offspring are all brain-dead.

Fritz Menzel

Why not crowd-source a fleet of Garbage Trucks to clean up all the space junk in orbit now. What was that sic-fi flic that was doing just that ?


These are serious scientific spacecraft which are much smaller than the traditional exploration systems and so will leave less material in space than the normal way of doing things. They are interplanetary and so do not contribute to the LEO space debris issue. Data will be transmitted by the space in a form that can be received by radio amateurs, universities, etc. and they're open sourcing everything so it will be easy to verify what they do. It's all in the FAQs on the KickStarter page.


We have a winner! Ok, litter is something to be avoided but this is a giant leap towards making space affordable to ALL.

Seth Miesters
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