Kicksat: Crowd-funded, DIY spacecraft to float into low-Earth orbit

Dec 06, 2012 by Anne Ju
Crowd-funded satellites to launch into space
Zac Manchester '09 holds a prototype sprite, hundreds of which will fly into space as part of the KickSat mission. Credit: Rebecca Manchester

(Phys.org)—It'll look like hundreds of postage stamps fluttering toward Earth—each an independent satellite transmitting a signal unique to the person who helped send it to space.

A Cornell-based project called KickSat is set to launch more than 200 of these tiny satellites, nicknamed "sprites," into low-Earth orbit as part of a routine NASA-administered mission in 2013 to the International Space Station. And unlike traditional, big government space exploration, KickSat is truly a launch by the people.

Several years ago, then-undergraduate Zac Manchester '09, now a graduate student in , dreamt up the idea of crowd-sourced, personal space exploration. He and Ryan Zhou '10 and Justin Atchison '10, in the lab of associate professor Mason Peck, designed and built a prototype spacecraft that fits in the palm of the hand and costs just a few hundred dollars to make. The sprites are a type of micro-satellite called a "ChipSat."

"We hope if this works out this could literally become DIY (do it yourself) ," said Manchester, now completing an internship at NASA. Three sprites have already been to space—aboard NASA's last Endeavour mission in May 2011 as a late add-on to the flight.

Manchester's goal, he says in his blog about the mission, "is to bring down the huge cost of spaceflight, allowing anyone from a curious high school student or basement tinkerer to a professional scientist to explore what has until now been the exclusive realm of governments and large companies. By shrinking the spacecraft, we can fit more into a single launch slot and split the costs many ways. I want to make it easy enough and affordable enough for anyone to explore space."

Sprites are the size of a cracker but are outfitted with , a radio transceiver and a microcontroller (tiny computer). KickSat, which is the name of the sprites' launching unit, is a , a standardized cubic satellite the size of a loaf of bread, frequently used in space research.

Using Kickstarter.com to find sponsors for the mission, Manchester raised nearly $75,000 as more than 300 people sponsored a sprite that will transmit an identifying signal, such as the initials of the donor. In 2013, about 250 sprites will be sent into space. One person, who donated $10,000, Manchester added, will get to "push the big red button" on the day of the launch.

Manchester's Kickstarter campaign has covered the cost of the hardware, while NASA's Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNA) program, which provides a free launch (normally $300,000) for university space research, is actually sending the sprites to space. The KickSat will hitch a ride in September 2013 (subject to change) from Cape Canaveral on CRS-3, the third SpaceX Falcon 9 flight destined for the .

The sprites will be housed in KickSat in spring-loaded stacks. Once in orbit, a radio-controlled lid will open, and out will float the sprites as free-flying spacecraft, transmitting signals traceable back at mission control on Ithaca's Mount Pleasant.

A large part of the project is helping people track their own satellites with a simple software radio interface. Some quick, off-the-shelf parts like an antenna hooked to a computer can become a personal tracking station, Manchester said. He already has volunteers from all over the world—Japan, Africa and elsewhere—who will track their own satellites and send him data.

From a research standpoint, Manchester is interested in the dynamics and behavior of the satellites, and plans to test how to track their positions and determine their orbits. All this, before the little satellites burn up in the atmosphere.

Explore further: NASA's MMS observatories stacked for testing

Related Stories

Fingernail-sized satellites depart on Endeavor's last run

Apr 28, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- A group of Cornell-developed, fingernail-sized satellites may travel to Saturn within the next decade, and as they flutter down through its atmosphere, they will collect data about chemistry, ...

NASA to upgrade vital communications link

Oct 06, 2012

Technicians and engineers are completing final system checks and spacecraft inspections on the first of NASA's third-generation Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS). Boeing Space Systems will ship TDRS-K ...

SpaceX launch good for NASA, not private firm (Update)

Oct 08, 2012

A private rocket successfully sent a capsule full of cargo zipping toward the International Space Station in a first of its kind delivery for NASA, but couldn't deliver on job No. 2: putting a commercial satellite into the ...

American resupply missions to the space station progressing

Oct 02, 2012

(Phys.org)—Orbital Sciences Corporation Monday rolled the first stage of its Antares rocket to the launch pad of the nation's newest spaceport - the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island, Va. - while in Florida, ...

NASA Updates Shuttle Target Launch Date for Hubble Mission

Jun 07, 2007

NASA managers officially are targeting Sept. 10, 2008, for the launch of the fifth and final space shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. During the 11-day flight, Atlantis' seven astronauts will repair ...

Sophisticated weather satellite rockets into orbit

Jun 28, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- The latest Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, GOES-O, soared into space today after a successful launch from Space Launch Complex 37 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station ...

Recommended for you

NASA's MMS observatories stacked for testing

55 minutes ago

(Phys.org) —Engineers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., accomplished another first. Using a large overhead crane, they mated two Magnetospheric Multiscale, or MMS, observatories – ...

ISEE-3 comes to visit Earth

2 hours ago

(Phys.org) —It launched in 1978. It was the first satellite to study the constant flow of solar wind streaming toward Earth from a stable orbit point between our planet and the sun known as the Lagrangian ...

Testing immune cells on the International Space Station

16 hours ago

The human body is fine-tuned to Earth's gravity. A team headed by Professor Oliver Ullrich from the University of Zurich's Institute of Anatomy is now conducting an experiment on the International Space Station ...

Easter morning delivery for space station

21 hours ago

Space station astronauts got a special Easter treat: a cargo ship full of supplies. The shipment arrived Sunday morning via the SpaceX company's Dragon cargo capsule.

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Apr 19, 2014

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

NASA's MMS observatories stacked for testing

(Phys.org) —Engineers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., accomplished another first. Using a large overhead crane, they mated two Magnetospheric Multiscale, or MMS, observatories – ...

ISEE-3 comes to visit Earth

(Phys.org) —It launched in 1978. It was the first satellite to study the constant flow of solar wind streaming toward Earth from a stable orbit point between our planet and the sun known as the Lagrangian ...

Easter morning delivery for space station

Space station astronauts got a special Easter treat: a cargo ship full of supplies. The shipment arrived Sunday morning via the SpaceX company's Dragon cargo capsule.

Meth mouth menace

Something was up in Idaho. While visiting a friend in Athol, a small town north of Coeur d'Alene, Jennifer Towers, director of research affairs at the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, noticed ...