Tiny ‘Sprite’ satellites will make space accessible to more than ever before

Have you ever wanted your own satellite? Whether it would be for serious scientific investigations, or you simply want it 'because of reasons', if you have $300 and the burning need to send something into space, you might want to look into the KickSat project.

A team at Cornell University, led by PhD student Zac Manchester, has come up with a very small and very cool idea: tiny satellites, about the size and thickness of a cracker, that will be launched into low-Earth orbit on board a 'KickSat' mothership. Each of these tiny, solar-powered satellites, rather appropriately called 'Sprites,' will only be capable of performing the most basic task now, just transmitting a simple 5-character text message from space. Manchester wrote "think of it as a shrunken down Sputnik," on the project's Kickstarter page, referring to the very first artificial satellite in Earth orbit, which simply circled the planet and beeped. However, this is just the start.

Everything is pretty much 'off-the-shelf' for these satellites now, and the plans are even available to download if you want to build one yourself. As the project develops further, the design can get more advanced, with customized computer chips to run tiny sensors for taking measurements of temperature, radiation or magnetic fields, or perhaps sending and receiving signals, or maybe just taking pictures.

"The idea is to make space super-cheap and as accessible to as many people as possible," Manchester told BBC News. "Substantially cheaper, smaller, easier than anything that's flown into space before."

The KickSat mothership isn't much to look at on its own, but its only purpose is to release the Sprites upon reaching orbit, laying them out in a pinwheel formation, like in this video:

A few of these Sprites went up into space on the last launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour, back in 2011, where they were mounted on the outside of the International Space Station.

The very first launch of the KickSat system, along with a complement of 100 Sprites, will be on February 22nd of this year. It won't be taking up a whole rocket on its own, though. According to BBC News, it will be piggybacking on SpaceX's launch of their Dragon spacecraft on a supply run up to the International Space Station. Once it's in orbit, the KickSat will circle the planet for roughly a week before releasing its cargo.

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The nice thing is that this project won't even add to the existing space junk in orbit. According to their Kickstarter page, the Sprites will fall back to Earth and burn up within just a few days, just long enough to make several orbits of the planet while their signals are tracked from here on Earth. The KickSat mothership will follow, burning up sometime in the next few months, so nothing from the mission will be left in orbit.

The future of the project will involve shrinking the design even further, which will mean even more of them can be launched per KickSat (perhaps thousands), which would lower the price even more. Just imagine the 'geek-cred' you'd earn for having your very own spacecraft in orbit, even if it is only the size of a dime.

(Image and video courtesy: KickSat Project/YouTube)

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