Zac Manchester is a PhD student in Aerospace Engineering at Cornell University and founder of KickSat, a project that aims to launch 200 CHIPSats into low Earth orbit. Here is what Manchester had to say about his first attempt to bring spacecraft to the masses.
CHIPSat is basically a satellite on a chip and has been in development at Cornell over the last 5 years. The model being used for KickSat is called The Sprite and is a 3.5 x 3.5 centimeter square printed circuit board equipped with capacitors, solar cells, a radio transceiver and micro-controller with room to spare for additional sensors. The Sprite is roughly the size of a couple postage stamps and in its current form can only transmit its name and a few bits of data. Many of the parts used to make a Sprite have to be bought in volume, the solar cells can only be bought in batches of 50 or 100; as a result Sprites need to be manufactured in batches at a time making the cost per Sprite approximately $25-$30.
KickSat Mission Details
KickSat is a 3U CubeSat roughly the size of a loaf of bread. One unit contains the standard CubeSat bust that handles the basic functions of the satellite while the other two units will house the 200 Sprites held in several spring loaded stacks held in place by a lid. Once KickSat enters into low orbit (between 300 and 350 kilometer altitude), and once ground gives the all clear, they will trigger the deployment which will launch the Sprites into space as free-flying spacecraft. The Sprites will have an estimated orbital lifetime of about two weeks, after which point their relatively high surface area to low mass ratio ensures they will succumb to drag and burn up in the atmosphere.
Educational Launch of Nano-Satellites (ELaNa) gives free CubeSat launches to university projects and is going to provide the launch vehicle for KickSat. The completed CubeSat will be sent to California Polytechnic where it will be integrated into a Peapod, a large spring-loaded tube that can hold up to three CubeSats. Manchester applied for a launch, and was selected to be carried on the SpaceX CRS-3 which is the third commercial resupply mission. It is a Falcon 9 and is currently scheduled to fly to the ISS in February 2014. In order to mitigate the possible risk of launch failure, the team has also created a second spacecraft in the event that this first launch ends in failure.
The main goal of the KickSat project is to demonstrate the feasibility of the technology. By demonstrating that it is possible for CHIPSats to survive in low earth orbit and communicate with ground, it will help pave the way for citizen science and cheaper space exploration. The Sprites are equipped with the same gyroscopes and magnetometers used in the consumer electronics industry. The magnetometer provides the compass functionality to a lot of cell phones while the gyroscope is the same one that allows your screen to correct itself when you flip your phone. Thanks to the consumer electronics industry there is an abundance of cheap, accurate, small scale sensors that could be used on future missions, broadening the scope of future experiments.
Why Fund through Kickstarter?
Manchester and his team tried obtaining funding through the more traditional academic fundraising avenues, writing grants to places like the National Science Foundation (NSF) or NASA, but they would always come up short over the course of a couple years. While they were able to get some funding for the initial research and development, the team felt it was time for an actual flight mission. It was at that point that Manchester became aware of Kickstarter and ELaNa contacted them with a flight opportunity. If they could get a free ride into orbit through the ELaNa program and raise enough money through Kickstarter, everything would work out. The team proceeded to create a Kickstarter campaign with a fundraising goal of 30,000 dollars. Pledge prizes ranged from having your name etched into one of KickSat’s panels ($25) to being able to press the big red button that deploys all the sprites ($10,000). A major selling point of their campaign was that all backers who pledged $300 or more essentially received their own Sprite in space with their initials in its radio transmissions. If you pledged $1000 or more you received a development kit that would allow you to program your Sprite spacecraft when it flies in space. Unlike other space project Kickstarter campaigns, KickSat could essentially give backers their own spacecraft, a huge boost in the popularity of their campaign. While Cornell did not provide any funding for the KickSat program, the team was able to raise $75,000 through Kickstarter. This meant that they were able to expand their project from the original 1U CubeSat design that could only deploy 50 Sprites to a 3U CubeSat design that could deliver 200 Sprites into space. The project was entirely funded for by Kickstarter and launch will be paid for by ELaNa.
When launching anything into space, debris is a major concern. This first mission is deploying into low earth orbit where KickSat and its Sprites are guaranteed to succumb to drag and vaporize in the atmosphere. 6 weeks is the absolute upper limit for how long these satellites can possibly stay in orbit. In the future they plan to have longer missions that involve placing the Sprites in higher orbit. A couple of concerns that have come up regard the NORAD fence, a radar system that tracks everything in Earth’s orbit. There exists a blind spot for detecting things smaller than five centimeters across, including Sprites, which is why it was necessary to do a low orbit mission this time around to ensure that they all burn up. The sprites do have radio transmitters which allow them to be tracked, and in the future Manchester hopes to exploit an interesting possibility where if the area to mass ratio is high enough, objects will be able to re-enter the atmosphere without burning up. In the future, thinner Sprites may be able to flutter into the atmosphere like a sheet of paper without burning up. This type of reentry phenomena would allow the devices to remain cool through reentry, avoiding the super hot plasma that causes communications blackout. This would enable a Sprite to collect data and communicate its entire journey through the upper atmosphere before being retrieved on the ground. It opens up a whole range of possibilities for scientific research that are currently impossible. While it is all speculation now, Manchester stresses that this type of technology won’t be around for another few years; this current mission is set to pave the way for the future democratization of space. Launch costs are still the overwhelming cost factor of space travel, and by shrinking down the size of space craft it opens up the possibility for regular people to perform experiments in space at a fraction of the cost.