A Groundbreaking Mini-Satellite Project May Be Doomed

A fleet of 104 quarter-sized satellites hit a deployment snag in space. 
A visualization of tiny satellites deployed by a larger satellite. (YouTube)

The plan was to launch a cloud of tiny satellites into space, each one no bigger than a quarter, and scatter them like spare change in the orbital dusk. 

But two weeks after a successful launch, there are concerns that the larger satellite carrying all those tiny ones—known as sprites—will burn up before the sprites are deployed. 

The satellites were designed by scientists at Cornell who want to replicate the success of Sputnik, the beach-ball-sized Soviet satellite that launched in 1957 and officially set off the space race. These sprites are each less than one ten-millionth Sputnik's size, but with all the functionality of the original.

"Our design packages the traditional spacecraft systems (power, propulsion, communications, etc) onto a single silicon microchip smaller than a dime and unconstrained by onboard fuel," scientists said in a description of the project. 

Now, those scientists are waiting—along with 315 backers who contributed nearly $75,000 on Kickstarter to support the project—to see if a technological snafu can be corrected before all of the satellites burn up in the atmosphere. 

The sprites were set to be deployed from a larger satellite, known as KickSat, on May 4. Here's a video that shows how KickSat is designed to disperse sprites across space: 

KickSat hitched a ride on a NASA-contracted CRS-3 spacecraft that was launched April 18 to resupply the International Space Station. But some time in the morning on April 30, KickSat's master clock reset itself. That master clock is what runs the countdown to deploy the sprites, the essential task pushed back by the unexpected reset to May 16 instead of May 4 as originally planned. 

Here's the problem, explained by Zachary Manchester, one of the Cornell rocket scientists behind the project: 

Unfortunately, it looks like KickSat will most likely reenter and burn up before the 16th. We've spent the last couple of days here at Cornell trying to think of every possible contingency, but it seems there aren't very many options right now. KickSat's uplink radio, which we could use to command the deployment, can't turn on unless the batteries reach 8 volts, and it doesn't look like they'll reach that level in time.

Manchester and his team suspect radiation is to blame for the reset snafu. And although things look "a little bleak" right now, he and his colleagues are holding out hope that battery power might get to the point where they can command deployment before KickSat burns up in the atmosphere—or that it doesn't burn up before the new May 16 deployment date. 

The goal of the project is twofold: Manchester and his team wanted to use the satellites to study the orbital dynamics of super tiny space dust particles, which are little understood.

They also wanted to engage the public with the idea that space exploration can be accessible to anyone, raising nearly $75,000 on a $30,000 Kickstarter goal. Contributors got to name their own personal mini-satellites, and pick the text message it would transmit from space. For now, it's unclear when those messages will be sent, but scientists say they will find a way to make it happen. 

"I promise," Manchester wrote, "this won't be the end of the KickSat project."

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Adrienne LaFrance

Adrienne LaFrance is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic. Previously she worked as an investigative reporter for Honolulu Civil Beat, Nieman Journalism Lab, and WBURMore

Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Gawker, The Awl, and several other publications. 
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