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Sprites – The Computer Chip-Sized Spacecraft That Will Send You a Text Message (for $300)

October 19, 2011

Sprites – The Computer Chip-Sized Spacecraft That Will Send You a Text Message (for $300)


Sprites, microchip-sized spacecraft, will form swarms by the thousands and transmit sensory data individually back to Earth.

This past August we reported on Sprites, computer chip-sized spacecraft that travel through space and explore as a swarm. Now a member of the research team has launched his own effort to harness the power of the swarm with a Kickstarter pledge campaign to raise $30,000 and send the Sprites into orbit.

In case you missed it, each Sprite measures less than four centimeters on a side and weighs less than 10 grams. Because their size makes it impossible to carry propulsion fuel, these very unconventional satellites will travel through space by being pushed along by photons shot from the sun, pulled along the gravitational currents and eddies known as the Interplanetary Transport Network, or by gravity assist upon nearing a planet. Eventually they will be equipped with sensors such as CMOS cameras – the kind found in common digital cameras – as well as chemical sensors and sensors that measure impacts made by space particles. Each Sprite will operate individually to record and transmit data back to the Earth. When taken together, data from an entire swarm of Sprites will provide a 3D picture of space impossible to achieve with single satellites. Another advantage is cost. While a typical satellite costs between $50 million and $400 million to launch into orbit, the 100 kilograms that 10,000 Sprites weigh would be a negligible add-on to any vehicle already scheduled for orbit.

The wafer-sized spacecraft already have one space mission under their microscopic belts. Last May three Sprites were flown to the International Space Station aboard the space shuttle Endeavour. They were fixed to the outside of the ISS for a two year test to see how they stand up to the harsh elements of space. But their ability to perform as a swarm, however, remains untested – a shortcoming that Zachary Manchester, a graduate student in Aerospace Engineering at Cornell University and part of the team that built the Sprites, would like to remedy. To this end, Zachary has placed the Sprites on the project fundraising website called “KickSat – Your personal spacecraft in space!” You can find it by going to

A Sprite.

KickSat is the team’s modified version of a CubeSat – a standardized, cube-shaped satellite that can cost-effectively bring payloads to orbit. CubeSat’s are small themselves, typically measuring 10x10x10 cm. But that’s plenty of space to house an eager swarm of Sprites. And people like you and me can personalize the mission through a series of donation incentives. For a $25 pledge you get your name printed on one of the KickSat panels. For $75 you get your name printed and a non-functioning Sprite replica. Those who pledge $300 or more will be able to name the Sprite and, when “Chipper” reaches space it’ll actually send the donor a short (up to 4 characters), personalized text message such as their initials. For developers with the means, $1000 will get them a Sprite development kit that includes a fully functioning Sprite, schematics, source code, and programming tools that will enable them to write their own flight code. Within certain limitations that developers would have to work out with Zachary before the launch, the flight code will be run during the test to control their Sprite. These donors will also receive instructions on how to set up a receiving station so they can directly listen to the signals as the Sprites send them from space.

Anyone pledging $5,000 or more will get all I’ve mentioned plus a VIP tour of Mission Control in Ithaca, NY where they’ll learn how the KickSat and the Sprites are built, and they get to be present when “The Big Red Button” is pushed to deploy the Sprites from the KickSat. And for $10,000 you get everything, and you get to push The Big Red Button yourself. Of course, there can only be one Big Red Button pusher, so hurry up and pledge your $10,000 before it’s too late!

KickSat is a CubeSat, a standardized way to deploy small payloads to orbit.

I myself pledged $75 because I want to be a part of this space revolution, this ushering in of a new era, this spawning of off-the-shelf, DIY, poor man’s satellite exploration.

And I wanted a replica.

All kidding aside, the Sprites could be the spark for a paradigm shift in the way we explore space. There’s strength in numbers. The major advantage of a Sprite approach to space exploration is the added certainty that a mission will be completed. If a few hundred fail out of 10,000 or tens of thousands you probably wouldn’t even know the difference. I asked the senior scientist on the Sprite team, Mason Peck, what excited him most about his chip-sized spacecraft. He responded in an email:

“The most powerful idea here is that a cloud of Sprites offers statistical certainty in the completion of a mission. In contrast, a large traditional satellite (say…Cassini or Voyager) has to work with similar reliability, but it has a sample size of one or two. The statistics of a cloud of thousands or millions of Sprites offers so-called statistical confidence that is much higher. and if you want even higher probability of mission success, just add more Sprites; there is no need to rebuild or rearchitect an exquisite single spacecraft to extract higher performance.”

Their incredible light weight also means they can go where no other satellites have gone before. “I want to see these things shot out of the solar system as high-energy projectiles,” says Peck. “The smaller they get, the worse their performance, but he easier they are to accelerate to very high speeds.” Consistent with the group’s mantra of Sprite personalization, Peck is asking how our tech-savvy Singularity Hub might make that happen. “Invite your readers to come up with a way to treat these things as particles in a particle weapon, using a technology that lets them approach maybe 10% of the speed of light. [At those speeds] they’ll reach the nearest star in our lifetimes, and our kids will hear back from them.”

So readers, would you like to be part of the Sprite team? For as little as a buck you can help Zachary get the Sprites to orbit. And for a deep understanding of particle physics and interstellar space travel you can help Peck get the Sprites to Alpha Centauri.

Now didn’t space exploration just get that much more fun?

[image credits:]
images: Sprites


From → science

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