The smallest spacecraft in orbit

Source: BBC

A swarm of 100 tiny satellites is poised to launch into orbit, owned by schoolchildren and space enthusiasts. Richard Hollingham finds out what it took to make these tiny travellers fly, and how they avoid posing a risk to bigger spacecraft.

As I type this, there’s a satellite sitting on the desk in front of me. You might wonder how it fits there, but this spacecraft is little bigger than a postage stamp, and around the width of a slice of processed cheese. Two wires protrude from the side and the word “KickSat” is written across its surface at a jaunty angle.

It may not look much like a typical spacecraft, but next month, 100 miniature satellites like this one will be blasted into orbit.

The KickSat project was conceived by Zac Manchester, a graduate student at Cornell University in New York. He raised the money, more than $70,000, through the Kickstarter crowd-funding website to enable people to have their own personal spacecraft, known as a sprite.

There has been tremendous interest in this ambitious mission. It was one of the first stories I covered in this column and here at BBC Future we have been following it for the past two years. “The idea is to make space super-cheap and as accessible to as many people as possible,” explains Manchester. “Substantially cheaper, smaller, easier than anything that’s flown into space before.”

Getting to this point, however, has proven far more difficult for Manchester than ever expected. It’s also required careful thinking about how to safely launch a hundred tiny bits of potential space debris without them posing a danger to bigger orbiting spacecraft.

The KickSat mission consists of a 3kg (6.6lb) shoebox-sized mothership, loaded with four stacks of the tiny individual sprite satellites. The mothership is scheduled to launch 22 February, squeezed into a Falcon 9 rocket alongside an International Space Station (ISS) Dragon supply capsule. “There’s typically a bunch of space left – little nooks and crannies – and you can hitch a ride for not a lot of money,” explains Manchester In this case, Nasa is flying Kicksat for free as part of its Educational Launch of Nanosatellites programme.

Once in orbit, the Falcon 9 will release the Dragon towards the ISS and, a few minutes later, pop the KickSat mothership into orbit. The slight delay is to avoid a space debris disaster like the movie Gravity. It’d be a risk if 100 tiny satellites end up pinging around the world at high speed in exactly the same orbit as the space station. The mothership will spend at least seven days in orbit before the sprites themselves are released. “There are some space debris mitigation concerns,” admits Manchester, “but we’ve worked with the ISS Program Office to make sure it’s safe for the ISS.” The sprites’ orbit is so low that they will only survive for around three days before the upper atmosphere drags them to destruction.

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