In the unlikely surroundings of a windowless basement laboratory at Nasa Ames in California, a revolutionary spacecraft is taking shape.
Through a crowded-funded project, a mini-satellite is being prepared for launch that will, in turn, contain even more tiny satellites representing the donors, as the BBC reports: “Cornell University graduate student Zac Manchester has been lent this lab to develop KickSat. This 30cm- (12in-) long satellite will contain 200 even smaller satellites, he’s called sprites. Around the size of a couple of postage stamps, these are probably the smallest spacecraft ever developed.
“Not only is the design of this space project unique but also the way it is being funded. Money for KickSat has been raised through the crowd-funding website Kickstarter and the sprites are allocated to the project’s supporters. Last year, BBC Future and the Space Boffins podcast paid the $300 on your behalf and I have travelled to meet Manchester to see what we are getting for our investment.
“I’d like to think of it as the people’s satellite,” says Manchester. “We’re pushing towards a personal satellite, where you can afford to put your own thing in space.”
“The sprites look more circuit board than satellite but despite being just 3.5 cm (1.5in) square and only a few millimetres thick, they are packed with technology. “Half the board is taken up with a solar array, then there’s a microcontroller – like a little computer,” Manchester explains, holding one of the sprites carefully between his finger and thumb. “Then we have a radio transceiver and two sensors – a magnetometer and a gyroscope.” These instruments enable the devices to sense the Earth’s magnetic field and take readings of orientation and spin. “We want to see how these come out of the mother ship, KickSat, and how they’re spinning after that.”