Send A Satellite Into Space For $300

There’s a new Kickstarter campaign that promises to launch a personalized satellite into orbit for 300 bones.

The KickSat project is headed by [Zac Manchester], [Mason Peck], [Justin Atchison] and a few more contributors hailing from Cornell University. Their goal is to launch a CubeSat filled with hundreds of postage stamp-sized satellites and release these ‘Sprites’ into low Earth orbit.

The Sprite concept has been in development for a while now and has been featured on IEEE Spectrum. The tiny satellites are simple PCBs with a microcontroller and a radio powered by solar cells and capacitors. The first version of the Sprite is designed to beam down a few bytes of data – just a unique identifier and a Kickstarter backer’s name. Future versions will undoubtedly include more advanced sensors such as cameras, thermometers, and very tiny particle detectors.

The KickSat team will use the funding from the Kickstarter campaign to test and integrate the systems. The team hopes to hitch a ride on one of NASAs many CubeSat launches, but if they get funding from 400 people, they’ll get to fly on a commercial launch by early 2013.

We were wondering about the amazing amount of space junk this KickSat/Sprite build will produce, but the team says not to worry: The Sprites fly in a pretty low orbit and will reenter the atmosphere a few weeks after being deployed. Not bad, considering Sputnik orbited for only 3 months.

63 thoughts on “Send A Satellite Into Space For $300

  1. Cool. Cube sats are interesting (I’ve interacted with some of the amateur radio cubesats; always an interesting time.)

    I wonder why they’re choosing to deploy them this way, rather than have all of the “sprites” plug in as modules on the larger cubesat so they could share a radio, rather than having a ton of tiny, extremely low powered units floating around.

    Still, I like it. It’s great to see space research conducted by folks other than governments and well-funded corporations!

  2. Eh. It’s an exposed board floating in space, blathering on the RF band. Sputnik was revolutionary – this, not quite so much. Especially when they plan to sperg out 400 of them. Now, if each had some sort of unique sensor, things could be more interesting.

    Or, double the size and make something far more interesting.

    1. That’s what the kickstarter people eventually want to accomplish one day. They’ve come up with a design for a microsatellite that uses lorentz force to change it’s orbit. The advantage of doing this is that your microsatellite is propellantless, which means it will never run out of fuel. As long as the sun still shines, the solar panels work, and the satellite passes through a planetary magnetic field it can keep on maneuvering. Heck, if you time things right, you could even launch the microsatellite to jupiter:

        1. You know how little this accounts for?

          Us humans release BILLIONS of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year.

          Never mind, your probably a republican who is acting like you care about the planet.

  3. They should try and keep the wieght down, there’s a bounty for nano satellites, it’s either 19 or 9g for an orbiting body. I forget the exact specs in order to claim the prize though.

  4. the reason small satellites are interesting is because they can be deployed in such huge quantities, imagine 400 of these collecting the same dataset,
    400 individual datapoints spread out is quite respectible if they keep the pricetag including launch to the 50k proposed

    1. Oodain: Interesting.
      I’m not sure they’d spread out enough [quickly enough] to do anything useful with such a large number of them if they’re all launched from the same point, though.
      Plus, wouldn’t it be incredibly difficult to reliably (and fairly continuously) receive the data from a large number of very small, very low-powered satellites with unknown Keplerian elements?
      I have a fair amount of difficulty manually tracking 5w transmitters up there, let alone something as small as these…

      1. they are mounted in spring loaded launchers in the cubesat, dunno how well it actually works.

        the sattelites themselves are tracked using a large network of amateur radios, any one receiver would quickly be overwhelmed..

        only one way to see if it works thogh

  5. I don’t think it is good idea to put a lot of this think in the low atmosphere, at least they are very sure they will burnt before touching the earth, otherwise they will be very dangerous when fall. A better idea it is an decent OpenSat.

  6. Not to be “That guy” but I want less crap in our orbit not more. I know these things have a very short orbit life but never the less come on people! Heres a neat idea, lets get the U.N to regulate all space traffic and nothing is allowed to be sent up unless they say so. Anything that is up there is under scrutiny and the U.N. can force it down. I want all that crap up there brought back down here. All we need is a few high powered super satelites placed in the right location and then all our data/photo needs are taken care of.

    Alas tis but a dream.

    1. @MrBishop:
      You’ll kill the budding commercial space industry before it blossoms…

      My understanding is that micro- (nano-?) satellites are a non-issue as far as space debris goes (as the article points out, and as was pointed out in comments).

    2. @MrBishop What we need is a regulatory body to determine: what’s okay to put up there, how much stuff can be up there at one time, what is acceptable to let fall out of orbit, and who can do it ( individuals should still be allowed to ).

      Anything larger than a certain size, such as a communications satellite, should require a license ( this project for instance, is hardly significant enough to be a danger to much ). Things should be required to be tracked if possible and any potential hazard reported. Ideally the government would do that, but putting the burden on the person sending it up there wouldn’t be the worst thing.

      1. @J Harton In complete and utter disagreement with you.
        Read 1984, the De-classified history of soviet/red Russia, and The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire(Its in Latin), before touting regulatory bodies.

        And Anything placed in the atmosphere is already tracked be 37 Govs and agencies.

  7. @MrBishop That’s a bit backwards. Crowding and competition will compel the industrious to strive further. Things change naturally as long as there is no discouragement. People naturally come forward to innovate when there are few barriers. It is a sad state when innovation is regulated out of existence.

      1. That is exactly what I was thinking when I read that they would all fall out of orbit after only a few weeks, and that they wouldn’t really do anything other than transmit a signal saying that they are alive.

        They say this is to see if they will keep working, and how long they stay in orbit…but if I am not mistaken, I think that there has already been a lot of work in this field. Electronics work in space and we know orbital trajectories and orbital decay…so I fail to see why they would want to know this, or rather, I fail to see why they couldn’t get this information from books.

        Now, if they put them into slightly higher orbit to get a year or so of use, and allowed people to build their own designs (provided they fit the weight/size requirements), then I would be saving my money and designing a circuit board.

        If you actually read the proposal, the $30,000 (100 people $300 each) doesn’t seem to be for launching either. They say that the $30K would cover the cost of the box to house the PCBs and the PCBs themselves, but that they would basically be begging for a free launch…based on the numbers they have there, I guess a commercial launch would cost about $90,000, not including the $30,000 for the box and boards. Considering the constant cuts to the NASA budget, you have to wonder if this project could ever take off without $120,000.

      2. This is an experiment. They are testing their viability. Perfectly reasonable considering all the things that could go wrong. I’m not sure it’s going to be done in this batch, but the Lorenz force based drive system needs to be tested in real life. Also, free rides to space aren’t that uncommon for small satellites. Your average communications/GPS/Spysat is about the size of a bus, so putting a small extra payload on after that isn’t usually a problem. In fact, I think almost all (if not all) amateur satellites have gotten free rides to orbit

  8. i real like the idea of a few of these thing each with a different sensor communicating back to a larger transmitter. Guess that’s not as cool as having your name is space though.

  9. Judging by the IEEE article, it’s still uncertain wether it will be possible to receive these weak radio signals on the ground or not. If I had to make a guess, I’d say not.

    1. Instead of launching a cubesat with 300 of these “sprites”, we launch a cubesat with 1 testbed for a ballute recovery system. Or maybe a solar wind sail. Or a micro ion drive.

  10. I’m all for cool new innovative projects like this.. but I wonder if anyone has looked into what hundreds or thousands of these little PCBs (hopefully lead-free) devices burning up in our atmosphere will affect.


    1. oh that many pcbs burning up will probably spread over a large area, the contaminants from it spreading deep into the ecosystem and poisoning generations of plants and animal life. Years down the line animals will be born with horrific abnormalities and plants will wither and die.

      Not really. They’ll probably amount to about 90% of fuck all

    2. The earth is really big. Really even if they where 100% lead it would probably be undetectable. Now what I want to know is how do you get it to point the solar cells at the sun?
      I see no battery and I see no thrusters or gyros. There are some caps but they are small. Over all this seems like a bit of waste to me.

      1. If I had to guess, the idea is that by being violently flung from the cubesat they’ll tumble a bit, and the cells will face the sun at certain intervals. After the caps are charged it’ll probably then fire off a quick radio burst and then go to sleep until the caps are charged again.

  11. Tweeks, they will affect absolutley nothing. Space junk including man-made space junk hits the atmosphere all the time. Even stuff a couple pounds/kilos burns up into it’s composite atoms on re-entry. A PCB weighing a few ounces won’t get very far before it’s completely gone.

    1. the satellites do very little at this point, you’re right. however, everything needs a starting point. the computer you’re using to type this message (or even better, the smartphone or tablet pc) is orders of magnitude more powerful than the first computers… they did practically nothing… however, i don’t seem them as a waste but a necessary step in the innovation of something great… that’s how i see these sprite satellites…the first step in innovation of something great…

      1. Yeah, but the first computers or the first cell phones were exactly that, the first. These are not Sputnik was launched +50 years ago. I understand the drive to do something novel, but they aren’t. Civilian satellites have been launched before. They aren’t even overcoming the large problems like making their own delivery system.
        Why not skip ahead to the part where the satellites do something useful? The technology is there, the money is there, the only thing holding them back is their own artificial restriction. Sure it’s cool to be able to fund a satellite personally, but why not send up 60 satellites that can record and transmit useful data instead of 300 that just scream their names into space?
        As was mentioned the designs don’t take into account the extremes in space, which are well known and have methods to overcome. It seems to me that they are needlessly reinventing the satellite and in general wasting development time. The first steps for what they are doing were taken long ago, aside from the private/non-corporate nature of the funding there is little new here.

      2. Sorry, those first computers didn’t do practically nothing. They did very useful things. Back in university, I used a small mainframe with 32k of ram (yes, that’s kilobytes) for data acquisition and processing. It may have been less powerful than a modern wristwatch, but it did a heck of a lot that I couldn’t have done easily by hand.

        Civilian satellites have done useful stuff – ham radio satellites are a perfect example. This present proposal is space junk designed by wankers.

      3. i disagree… what’s new and interesting about these satellites is their size. this is sputnik that is slightly larger than a postage stamp! it isn’t realistic to “skip ahead to the part where they do something useful”… you have to take things step by step. first of all, it’s much less expensive to work out issues on a simple system vs one that has sensor arrays etc… these satellites are a necessary step to motivate the feasibility of the “useful” versions of these satellites. essentially these satellites are sent up, ping information back to earth and indicate that this “form factor” of satellite can perform a task. that motivates funding which allows for development of Sprites that have increased functionality. Imagine a fleet of these small satellites that have various sensors… it’s not just 1 satellite that is measuring things, it is a small army of them… talk about parity…

        Also, I think it’s a rather innovative way on the researcher’s part to get funded. Have you seen NASA’s budget lately… Oh wait, it has none…

  12. This is something I’ve dreamed about since I first learned about space. If I wasn’t broke, I’d be all over it.

    @Everyone saying “Derp, just launch a real satellite.” – It’s prohibitively expensive, even the amateur sats are in the 20K range for the hardware alone.

    @Everyone saying it has no propulsion – It does, you’re just stupid. On February 25, 1996, NASA in cooperation with Italy, launched an experiment to see if electricity was produced when a long, conductive tether was dragged through the Earth’s magnetic field. Turns out, it does. So, if we do the exact opposite, namely, charging a conductive wire in a magnetic field, it should make a change in velocity. The deltaV for this is very low, but with a satellite that small, it could be significant. At least enough to change the orientation, and possibly to boost the orbit.

    @Everyone saying they’re gonna get eat up by space dust – Maybe. However they currently have three of these Sprites attached to the outside of the ISS, and they’re gonna see what damage has been done whenever they return from orbit.

  13. @ jOzOr
    The stated goal of the project organizers is 30k USD so they can definately afford the 20K price mark. So money isn’t the issue.

    @ Suter
    I disagree with that entire premise. This execution of the sprite concept doesn’t need a proof of concept at all. Yes perhaps some of the sprite researchers who are pushing the limits of circuit technolgy do, but even then a proof of concept is a few satellites, not 300. These Guys are making discrete component satellites about the size of a saltine cracker, we already know that the parts they are using will work given the time frame. I doubt they’ll last terribly long without EM/Ion shielding but that period to degrade their usefulness is probably greater than their projected orbital lifespan.

    Like I said before why not take the money and build 30 $1000, 60 $500, or 100 $300 satellites that acutally do something other than scream into space? Surely with that budget they would be able to create few satellites that do some task other than broadcast a radio signal. I agree that having one chassis do multiple tasks well is difficult, but I think that for a masters student with 30 grand in independant funding he should be able to have them do -something- useful. How hard is it to slap on a temp probe and a detector of some fashion?

    1. OK, they are STUDENTS. This is what we call a “learning experience.” You know, where you do something that someone else has already done, so you can, ya know, learn something. They found a unique way to try and fund their project, and I hope they succeed. Especially since, unlike every other space agency, they plan to be publishing their code, schematics, and documentation.

  14. My roommate brought up a good point. Not sure how long the satellite name can be (in addition to the 4 characters you can send), but this could potentially make a great geeky proposal.

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