Pocket Sized Sattelites For Asteroid Detection


We’ve seen kicksats before, small pocketable single board satellites designed to orbit Earth. At this year’s Maker Faire, the team behind these kicksats has a new plan: using them to determine the orbits of earth-passing asteroids and hopefully not giving us any forewarning of our imminent extinction.

Instead of simply orbiting Earth, the new plan for these kicksats is to deploy them into the path of an oncoming asteroid such as Apophis so the radio transmissions from each satellite can pinpoint where exactly the asteroid is, something Earthbound optical and radio telescopes struggle with.

Despite the small size, the hardware on each kicksat is pretty impressive; each mini satellite has a solar cell on each side, a low-power MSP430 microcontroller with a radio module, and a few sensors. The system is designed so anyone can pick up the telemetry from these satellites with a small Yagi antenna and an RTL SDR TV tuner dongle.

An impressive bit of kit, but if holding a satellite or asteroid in your hand is more your thing, the same team behind the kicksat put up a whole bunch of 3D models of asteroids and space probes. They’re actually quite impressive when they’re printed out.

34 thoughts on “Pocket Sized Sattelites For Asteroid Detection

    1. These use the opposite philosophy / methodology. Make them so cheap to make, and small and light and therefore cheap to launch, so that if 90% of them fail within 2 months it’s still a win.

      Of course if none at all last for a day, that’s a failure. I’d imagine someone somewhere will work out the feasibility for this before they actually light the touchpaper.

        1. At least ISS has few bunch of laptops, dSLRs, smartphones etc with only few inches of shielding. There are also PDA-based CubeSats already flying, and Japanese MUSES-C(Hayabusa) probe went all the way to an asteroid and back with just industrial grade DRAM and SH-3(in 3-way redundant setup). Cosmic rays do cause problems but it’s weaker inside Van Allen belt to the point non-hardened SoC do survive with some preparation, and with even extra care it’s not impossible to fly such devices outside it.

          Now let’s add the fact that mobile CPUs are shrinking increasingly fast(hence getting weaker) in past 3 years…

    2. I also don’t see how a tiny thing like that with a solar panel that is also tiny can transmit over the distances that asteroids move. And then being able to pick them up with a damn yaggi? I’m no radio transmission expert in any way but I just don’t see that happen.

  1. I think a “small Yagi” isn’t going to cut it… there has to be gain somewhere, and it doesn’t look to be on the satellite end… I don’t see that thing throwing out more and a few watts. And we’re talking millions of miles here. Inverse square comes into play big-time. Big question being it’ll have to come in under 1.7Ghz and less than 2Mhz bandwidth to conform to RTL-SDR specs… maybe even less because of the LO spike. and the limitations of SDR software and USB..

    I’m not seeing much of an antenna on that little cube there… so the “business end” is going to have to be on the ground station’s side…. which means a higher gain antenna than a “small Yagi”.. we’re talking a 20-element Yagi… with the addition of phased elements to make it R/LHCP, since flat polarization has been shown to not work so well for spaceborn communications. That makes it a bit less than a half a meter or so long at 1.7Ghz, which IS tiny for a Yagi – but along with that comes the requirement for absolute precision when placing elements, even the surface precision in the manufacture of the elements themselves. The higher the frequency, the smaller the wavelength, the smaller the margin for error. It CAN be done… be we’re talking sub-millimeter here. If the frequency of lower, the size of the antenna begins to become problematic.

    I believe a better choice would be a parabolic reflector with a helical antenna and a standard LNB/A(depending on the frequency involved). And a big dish…

      1. If you have direct contact, then maybe ask if there is a purpose in having a circuit substrate at all? It feels like wasted space and weight. Go freeform or paper. Could definitely launch more of these little things in the same package that way.

        1. The robustness of current COTS hardware, the spaceflight legacy for this hardware and the familiarity and low cost manufacturing processes involved for this kind of system makes it far more an ideal approach to satellite development.

          NASA as an agency is quite adept at making unique, one of a kind, an extraordinarily capable spacecraft that sometimes fail and are always expensive. KickSats on the other hand is leveraging existing hardware for a lower cost, higher reliability, and more publicly accessible & understandable approach.

    1. If they find the asteroid, they launch it into orbit there, it doesn’t matter where the astroid is going. Once you’re in orbit around the gravity well of the asteroid, it doesn’t matter where the asteroid itself goes, you’ll stay in orbit around it.

      1. If you don’t know the orbit of something you cant intercept it, remember even at relatively close ranges your sats will reach the target many thousands to millions of miles from the point it was at when you launched. But as a more direct answer to mikemac the beginning of the story says clearly that the satellites are intended to provide more exact locations than ground or space based scopes can. Meaning they already know about the object and roughly where it is and will be. A cluster of these are sent to cross the path of said object in a wide dispersal and the collective data from the cluster helps to determine exactly where it is and is going. its just a matter of resolution, with time and cash you could send up a single large scope to scan the area the object is known to occupy and eventually you will get the same result. just at a greater cost and longer time scale on average.

  2. A few comments while I stand in a food line here at World Maker Faire.

    Radiation damage to circuitry is not an instantaneous phenomenon. Damage is a function of dosage, which is dependant on not just source energy but also time. These specific chipsats are intended for LOW EARTH ORBIT of no greater than 300 miles above the surface. The spacecraft are not only protected by Van Allen belts, but their orbital lifespans are far less than the expected dosages for that altitude.

    Regarding a Yagi’s ability to detect signals from these devices, please note that we are not sending these to Mars, or the Moon, or anywhere near the ‘millions of miles’ a prior commenter pointed out. 300 miles, line of sight, 5 watt transmitter. We have empiraclly determined that these spacecraft are EASILY detectable from that.distance, and with some special digital signal processing, data throughput is certainly attainable. For comparison…GPS signal strength is far, far weaker than what would would be received by the KickSat’s yagi.

    Toward concerns about debris 300 miles. Chipsats have low mass & high surface area. Orbital lifetimes at these altitudes (likely even lower) are measured in weeks. Real science can be attained in that timespan….while it does require an education, it does not require much of an imagination of how useful such a mission profile could be.

    1. All makes sense, but how does the low orbit relate to the “using them to determine the orbits of earth-passing asteroids and hopefully [not] giving us any forewarning of our imminent extinction.” use case? If an asteroid is that close (300 miles from earth, i.e. fractions of a second before impact), I’m pretty sure other means like earth-based radar are perfectly capable to track them.

      1. Correct. However, these chipsats are deployed from a mother ship 3Ucubesat. For an asteroid mission, we would obviously design the system differently, with more efficient antennas, stronger transmitters, and power reserves. Most obviously, a signal relay system based upon the still quite functional deployer would be used to ensure local chipsat signals were amplified back home.

    2. This isn’t criticism…. I’m just trying to figure out where the assertions are coming from. My understanding is that this mission is SPECIFICALLY for gravitational capture of microsats by a passing asteroid, and subsequent tracking of those microsats for more accurate ephemeris of the target body.

      According to the ephemeris I have seen, especially after that initial correction and down-rating on the threat scale, 2004MN4/99942 will be much further than 300 miles… we’re talking coming just within GSO, or about what…. 26k miles? That’s a lot of D-V for a gravitational capture of a “submunition”-type satellite within the field of a minor(fast-moving) planetary body.

      How exactly are these microsats to be deployed to intercept a fast-moving target at that distance for capture?

      I have some more questions… but I will defer them for the moment.

      1. The inaugural mission of the KickSat is hopefully coming this Jan aboard SpaceX’s 3rd Commercial Resupply Mission, unless it gets delayed. Please read more of Zac’s blog at the KickStarter page.


        Todays Education and Public Outreach event was merely a demonstration of NASA’s prior history with exploring asteroids, and how the public can be more involved with spaceflight through NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge. the KickSat demonstration is not in any way shape or form descriptive of an actual mission, but more of an exhibition of possible capabilities.

  3. What would be something neat is to put out a few million such bugs, equipped with small solar sails. The mission? To locate and physically tag as many asteroids as possible with solar powered beacons.

    1. A step on the path to such a mission can be found at PocketSpacecraft.com – deploying a few thousand generic thin-film spacecraft/lander/rovers that act as solar sails on a mission to the moon.

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