The Personal Space Age: Own Your Own Spacecraft

October 18, 2011 | 10:44
The Personal Space Age: Own Your Own Spacecraft
The Personal Space Age: Own Your Own Spacecraft
Zac Manchester, a student of Aerospace Engineering at Cornell University decided it is time to democratize space exploration. Until now space has been the exclusive domain of governments and large companies, he writes. By bringing down the costs dramatically he wants to make it possible for anyone to own a spacecraft.

Together with others Manchester built a spacecraft called Sprite which costs only $300. But the biggest expense for owning your own working space ship is sending it into space. That is one reason why he made the machine the size of a postal stamp. Because of its small size hundreds of Sprites can share a launch slot. Dividing the costs amongst the different owners.

Small spacecraft designers make use of the knowledge acquired in space dust research. It was discovered that dynamics of space dust are different from those of larger bodies. The motion of larger bodies is mostly determined by the force of gravity. Other forces like solar radiation pressure (SRP) and electromagnetic effects have only a small impact compared to gravity.

But because the dust specks are so small in size –varying from a few molecules to 100 micron- these forces can compete with gravity and determine their motion in the space environment. SRP has been observed to eject dust out of the solar system while electromagnetic effects can send dust into planetary orbit.

Traditional spacecraft engineers take note of these forces but only be able to minimize their effects. Large spacecrafts are designed to avoid the small but disturbing influence SRP has on the flight trajectory. But small spacecraft designers are mesmerized by this play of forces unique to the space environment and are looking for ways to exploit it. For instance, it can be applied to propel spacecrafts by designing a sun sail to harness SRP.

The Sprite was developed as a prototype to  explore the behavior of small bodies in space. It consists of a microcontroller mounted with solar cells, sensors and a radio transceiver. This model can only transmit a few bits back to earth. But in the future Manchester hopes to improve its computing power and add sensors like camera’s and thermometers. Thus enabling people to conduct their own space exploration.

It wouldn’t be a true birth of the democratization of spaceflight if the Sprite did not draw on the power of the crowd to come to fruition. On the crowdfunding site Kickstarter Manchester is appealing to the people to raise $30,000 to finalize the project. He’ll use the money to build a miniature satellite named KickSat that can take the Sprites into low orbit. If you chip in $300 you can own your own Sprite which will be launched January 2013 with your name on it.

The radio signals emitted by the Sprites will be received and recorded by a world wide network of amateur ground stations.

Sprite is an open source and open hardware project. All hardware schematics and source code will be made available online enabling people to modify and improve the Sprite and the KickSat. Whoever donates $1000 to the project receives a developer kit enabling her to fly her own code in space come 2013.

Articles with more information on small spacecrafts can be found on:

Photo: Source KickSat project

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