Tiny spacecraft launched into low earth orbit

Zac Manchester, who is studying aerospace engineering at Cornell University, has developed tiny, inexpensive spacecraft called Sprites that are about the size of a cracker. A small satellite called KickSat carried 104 of the Sprites into space in April 2014 and deployed them into low-altitude orbit.

Zac Manchester with KickSat.

Zac Manchester with KickSat.

The KickSat mission launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., after many delays. Sixteen days later, the Sprites were released into a specific orbit as free-flying spacecraft. Within a week of deploying, Manchester expected all of the Sprites to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere at which point they will be vaporized.

A student of Dr. Mason Peck at Cornell, Manchester and his team tracked the Sprites, recorded their radio signals and gathered data. Each Sprite included a small device made by Dallas-based TI, sensors and solar cells to transmit real-time data, such as temperature, back to Earth.

The tiny Sprite satellite.

The tiny Sprite satellite.

“The goal of the KickSat mission is to show that these Sprites can survive in space, that we can talk to them and that they can be useful,” Manchester said by phone. “This is basically my Ph.D thesis.”

He had been working on the Sprites for a few years, using different semiconductors, but wanted “a very tiny, tightly integrated chip with a microcontroller and a radio. Then he found TI’s cc430 device, which combines a microprocessor with a low-power integrated radio frequency transceiver.

Manchester also hopes his project will make space missions more accessible and less expensive.

“More access to space will allow more people to get involved … [and] will open up new types of missions, such as ionospheric science,” he said. The ionosphere is the Earth’s upper atmosphere, which affects radio waves and other communications signals.

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