Listening To A Swarm Of Satellites In Orbit


A few months ago, we heard of a Kickstarter with an amazing goal: give everyone with $300 burning a hole in their pocket their very own satellite orbiting Earth. Time passes, the mothership has been launched, and in just a few short hours, over a hundred of these personal femtosatellites will be released into low Earth orbit.

The Kicksat consists of a 3U cubesat that was recently launched aboard the SpaceX CRS-3 mission to the International Space Station. Inside this cubesat are over one hundred satellites called Sprites, loaded up with solar cells, magnetometers, a microcontroller and a radio to communicate with ground stations below. The current mission is a proof of concept, but if everything goes as planned, similar satellites can be deployed into the path of incoming asteroids, or whenever a mission calls for a swarm of small smart devices covering a huge area.

Already the Kicksat mothership has been tracked by a few enterprising amateur radio enthusiasts but the deployment of the Sprites isn’t scheduled until today at 4:00 PM EDT (20:00 GMT). After that, the Sprites will be on their own, spewing out data and the initials of kickstarter backers to most of the population of Earth.

For anyone worrying about these Sprites causing an ablation cascade or a Kessler syndrome, don’t. Orbital decay is a function of surface area and mass, and these extremely lightweight thin rectangles will burn up in the atmosphere in a few week’s time. The lack of radiation hardening on the Sprites won’t be a problem, either. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as they’re orbiting well within our wonderful, protective magnetosphere, and there are digital cameras, tablets, and other much more radiation sensitive electronics that have been working perfectly on the ISS for years now.

You can check out the current location of the orbiting Kicksat mothership on the project website, read the updates on the project blog, or check out our coverage of the Kicksat program from last year’s world maker faire in New York. Relevant videos below.

Oh, and if you have a USB TV tuner, a good antenna, LNA, and some experience with SDR, here’s what you need to listen in.

36 thoughts on “Listening To A Swarm Of Satellites In Orbit

    1. Nice $74,586 shooting star. At least it wasn’t as expensive as Columbia or Challenger, but you get what you pay for, so no great fireforks, only a small shooting star

      1. In LEO radhard parts are not really needed for a lifetime of a few months. It requires a powersupply that resets when the current is too high due to latchup and software that checksums its memory. The program memory should not get corrupted that fast as quite of lot of energy is needed to erase a flash cell.

        I think the bug is that the countdown timer reset after the watchdog event, it should just reuse the previous value if it makes sense.

  1. The cubesat that is carrying the Sprites tripped the watchdog interrupt resetting the deployment timer. So unless the satellite charges its battery back to 8 volts, the uplink radio will remain offline so they can not command deployment of the Sprites. Since the watchdog tripped, the auto-deployment timer was also reset and unless the satellite remains in orbit till May 16th, the Sprites will not get deployed automatically (a failsafe mode) and the whole thing will burn up in reentry….

    Radiation is Space’s sweet little FU…

    1. Jérôme Vuarand, if you read before you comment, you would know that these are launched in a 2-week orbital decay, by May 16th, they’ll be burning up to dust while entering the atmosphere.

  2. Does anyone know how much the 27% efficient solar cells that were used on these ‘satellites’ cost? The cost of a sprite was only $75 and included 4 cells, which implies the cost is actually quite reasonable, compared to the several hundred (or thousand, for space qualified ones) per cell that I usually see quoted for such technology (it makes sense, they start out as an ultrapure germanium wafer and then the solar cell is deposited using similar tools to those used for making normal computer chips, but the cells are physically larger than any processor on the market)

    1. From what I understand, those cells are cut offs from other panels. Really high grade to be sure (mostly used on other, much bigger satellites), but essentially industrial waste, so only a couple bucks per sprite.

      1. It’s not a scam. People are getting telemetry from the satellite.

        The timer is necessary to prove to NASA that the sats can’t deploy before their allotted window. If it was remotely actuated, there would always be a risk that they could be spuriously deployed. Having the timer reset on a watchdog reset was an unfortunate oversight, but there was never any guarantee that this would work first time. Software is hard, hardware is harder, and space just makes it exponentially worse.

    1. My understanding (I was part of the University of Texas Nanosat-3 / FASTRAC team) is that it’s a standard precaution for this sort of payload so that it can’t possibly do anything prior to being deployed.

  3. I own one of the Sprites, which may or may not be ejected from KickSat before it re-enters, and I have to say that I’m more than happy with the outcome. Spaceflight is risky, full stop. There’s nothing like watching a NASA TV broadcast knowing that a small part of the payload belongs to you, and I’d support the project again in a moment!

    1. Spaceflight is risky, that’s true, but I would not let these people design even a wooden cart. Come on, an MCU reset is the most common thing, even on earth, and can be easily taken into account.

        1. I advised them. No sigle point of failure, don’t use duct tape, don’t run with scissors, etc.
          Are you serious? These are very basic things for the most mundane earth boards.
          I don’t know anything about the people in charge of this. But this looks like the first space fiasco caused by “Arduino engineering”.

          1. Had to laugh there… I can imagine a hall of fame that would include first world war started by “Arduino engineering” a cyborg war is not too far off either.

          2. They had a secondary activation method which used a remote trigger signal, but that relied on the solar cells providing enough charge to power up the receiver. Unfortunately the cells aren’t providing enough power to do that before it burns up in reentry

    1. Since the devices have zero heat shielding when they hyper accelerate and contact the atmosphere, the effect is similar to plasma incineration with alot of the components being converted directly to gas with very little slag, considering the area of effect of the dispertion being over 100s of miles across, in effect you’d never find the trace elements if you tried. Don’t be a big shot, usually you end being the one that looks like the asshole.

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