The Postage Stamp-Sized Satellites Endeavour Carried Into Space

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Everyone focused on the launch, but Endeavour is carrying a unique experiment that shouldn't be missed: tiny satellites that emulate space dust

When Endeavour lifted off the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center for the final time on Monday morning with Mark Kelly, husband to Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, at the helm, tucked inside of the 156,000-pound, 122-foot-tall beast were three tiny satellites. 

Endeavour, which was headed for the International Space Station (ISS) on this, STS-134, has launched satellites in the past. In fact, the first Space Shuttle mission for which Endeavour was deployed involved the capture and rerelease of the stranded INTELSAT VI communications satellite. STS-49, Endeavour's maiden flight, was a success. The crew, led by commander Daniel Brandenstein, retrieved INTELSAT from low earth orbit, which it had failed to leave two years earlier, and moved it into its intended geosynchronous orbit.

The satellites carried by the current Endeavour crew, who experienced lift off nearly two decades after that first batch of NASA astronauts led this Shuttle into space, are much different than anything INTELSAT, which controls the world's largest fleet of commercial satellites, currently owns and operates. The new satellites are each about the size of a postage stamp. The maker of the 2cm x 2cm chips, professor Mason Peck of Cornell University's Space Systems Design Studio, hopes that he has built a prototype for the future.

Peck wants to see a small army of these small satellites orbiting the Earth, collecting information about space in real-time. "Their small size allows them to travel like space dust," he said in a statement, according to the Los Angeles Times. "Blown by solar wind, they can 'sail' to distant locations without fuel."

Remember the movie Twister starring Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton? Dr. Jo Harding, Hunt's character, builds a tornado-analyzing device that promises to provide more scientific information about how tornadoes operate than any other product currently available. As the movie wears on, the first three iterations of the Dorothy are destroyed. Releasing the fourth into the eye of a mile-wide F5, though, proves a success, and hundreds of tiny sensors are sucked into the tornado's system. The data begins to pour in, filling spreadsheets and populating charts.

That's what Peck hopes to emulate -- though he's made no reference to Steven Spielberg as far as I can tell. Right now, building and maintaining full-size satellites costs millions of dollars every year. The postage stamp-sized replacements would run a fraction of that number. "We're actually trying to create a new capability and build it from the ground up," Peck said. "We want to learn what's the bare minimum we can design for communication from space."

Via Los Angeles Times.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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