KickSat: The smallest spacecraft in 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.

Little craft, big tasks

Some of the sprites will do little more than go beep, like the original Sputnik, others will transmit identification codes and some will even be used for science. Those fitted with magnetometers – like the ones that provide your smartphone compass – will transmit data about the Earth’s magnetic field. Others will send back information on temperature, orientation or radiation.

Anyone with the right equipment, and a bit of know-how, will be able to follow all the spacecraft from the ground.

“What we’ve been able to do with KickSat is tap into the developments in consumer electronics,” says Manchester, “We’re using a lot of the components that have been developed for smartphones to make these tiny satellites possible.”

Although developing the technology was certainly a challenge, the toughest part of the mission has been wading through the necessary paperwork. “I didn’t fully grasp how much bureaucracy there would be,” Manchester confesses. “I learned the saying from Nasa that you have to have at least as much weight in paperwork as your satellite weighs, before you can get it launched. And that’s definitely true.”

Indeed, paperwork headaches stopped BBC Future sending its own satellite to space. Due to a mix-up, the particular sprite we had planned was not loaded into the mothership (in case you are wondering, it’s not the one on my desk – that’s a copy). Happily, we are teaming up with a group based in the East of England – the East Anglian Amateur Radio Observatory – to track their sprite.