While recent commercial competition has dropped the cost of reaching orbit to a point that many would have deemed impossible just a decade ago, it’s still incredibly expensive. We’ve moved on from the days where space was solely the domain of world superpowers into an era where multi-billion dollar companies can join on on the fun, but the technological leaps required to reduce it much further are still largely relegated to the drawing board. For the time being, thing’s are as good as they’re going to get.
If we can’t count on the per pound cost of an orbital launch to keep dropping over the next few years, the next best option would logically be to design spacecraft that are smaller and lighter. Thankfully, that part is fairly easy. The smartphone revolution means we can already pack an incredible amount sensors and processing power into something that can fit in the palm of your hand. But there’s a catch: the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation.
Often referred to as simply the “rocket equation”, it allows you to calculate (among other things) the ratio of a vehicle’s useful cargo to its total mass. For an orbital rocket, this figure is very small. Even with a modern launcher like the Falcon 9, the payload makes up less than 5% of the liftoff weight. In other words, the laws of physics demand that orbital rockets are huge.
Unfortunately, the cost of operating such a rocket doesn’t scale with how much mass it’s carrying. No matter how light the payload is, SpaceX is going to want around $60,000,000 USD to launch the Falcon 9. But what if you packed it full of dozens, or even hundreds, of smaller satellites? If they all belong to the same operator, then it’s an extremely cost-effective way to fly. On the other hand, if all those “passengers” belong to different groups that split the cost of the launch, each individual operator could be looking at a hundredfold price reduction.
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.
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.