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Cornell grad to launch crowd-funded micro satellites

Designer Zac Manchester builds a Sprite satellite.
KickSat, a crowd-funded satellite program, is launching 200 microchip satellites, or Sprites, into low orbit this fall. These Sprites, developed by Cornell University aerospace engineering graduate Zac Manchester, are the first low budget spacecrafts to open space exploration to the public.

We have a launch this coming fall,” Manchester said. “Right now the date is officially September 23 but…I warn [people] that it can change.”

Manchester has been developing Sprites for nearly five years. He started as a junior at Cornell, researching ways to design and launch satellites. They came up with Sprites: micro-chip satellites, about 3 centimeters square. The Sprites will orbit for a few months before burning up in atmosphere.

In 2011, NASA released a call for proposals through ElaNA, an Educational Launch of Nanosatellites. The program gives free launches to university micro-satellite projects known as CubeSats. Manchester’s CubeSat will carry and deploy 200 Sprites into low orbit.

“Until recently, space has been inaccessible to almost everybody except for big government industries, and so what CubeSats do [has] changed the playing field,” astrophysicist and professor of planetary science and physics at MIT Sara Seager said.

“They’re enabling small universities, small companies and lots and lots of nations that are not traditionally space nations to be able to build and launch satellites.”

But KickSat is taking this a step further; a Sprite costs approximately a thousand dollars [RS1] to build and launch, a cost Manchester hopes will decrease in the future. The goal of the project is to make it so an individual in their garage can receive information from their own satellite.

“[The concept] lined up well with the KickStarter model where we could get funding from a bunch of people and people can sponsor a Sprite,” Manchester said.

So when public grants failed, they turned to

 Manchester and his team raised nearly $75 thousand from 315 backers[RS2] . They received funding from international groups and individuals like the British Interplanetary Society who bought an entire fleet of Sprites.

One of the Sprite’s greatest draws is they can be used in a multitude of research projects to cater to many fields.

Tokyo HackerSpace, a Japanese technical group is currently meeting to devise a plan for their own Sprite satellite according to Michael Turner, the project’s collaborator.

Sprites are capable of transmitting data such as temperature and photographs from their micro sensors. They can simultaneously send hundreds of data points –– previously an unachievable feat.

“The advantages these have over larger, more traditional spacecrafts [is] one: they’re a lot cheaper to build and launch; and two: they have better spatial resolution,” Manchester said. A third benefit is that the Sprites will burn up in atmosphere, instead of becoming “space junk” like most old satellites.

However the Sprites’ small size hinders the strength of their radio signal and the sensors they carry.

“We have a problem, because data that is transmitted down to earth that we can do in the small CubeSats is pretty limited,” Seager said.

Despite this drawback, Sprites are still attractive to researches because they are low-risk investments.

“When you do the big missions at NASA, you’re not allowed to fail and rightly so…by being able to put lots of things into space quickly and cheaply, you can take big risks and test new technology,” Seager said.

The launch this fall will demonstrate the Sprites’ space-worthiness. They will orbit for a few weeks, and send signals to hundreds of receivers on earth. Manchester hopes the project will continue to grow, launching more Sprites in the future, and opening up the world of space exploration to the public.

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