Postage-Stamp Satellites Hitch a Ride on the Space Station

By Veronique Greenwood | April 29, 2011 5:15 am

chip dime
The chip at the core of the Sprite
microsatellite is smaller than a dime.

What’s the News: Imagine a cloud of tiny satellites, each no larger than a postage stamp, sailing like dust on solar winds through a planet’s atmosphere and sending radio signals home, with no need for fuel. When a small patch of real estate opened up on an International Space Station experiment, researchers jumped at the chance to test the durability of such tiny “satellites on a chip,” which they hope to eventually deploy in atmospheres like Saturn’s, and three of the miniature objects are being delivered to the Space Station by Endeavor on its final flight (which was just scrubbed for today). They will allow researchers to see how well such microsatellites hold up to radiation and other rigors of space.

How the Heck:

  • The mini-satellites, developed by Cornell University and Sandia National Laboratories and called “Sprites,” are intended to take data about chemistry, radiation, and other properties—they could even be used to detect whether a planet’s atmosphere has any chemical signatures of possible life, such as nitrogen.
  • Instead of using fuel, the tiny printed squares of silicon would rely on physical phenomena already present in space to get around. The sun’s radiation pressure is one prospective source of propellant—essentially, light leaving the sun collides with small particles like dust and pushes them gently farther out into the solar system. The idea of such “solar sailing” has been around since the 1920s, and the first successful launch of a solar sail-propelled craft, IKAROS, was in 2010.
  • The satellites could also sail on electromagnetic effects like those that contribute to the formation of the rings of Saturn. Traditional spacecraft use fuel to surf a planet’s gravitational field to execute a flyby, while a charged Sprite chip would ride the planet’s electromagnetic field
  • The three prototypes going into space on Endeavor each have a special radio signature that will let researchers tell them apart, which is key: when scientists release a cloud of the satellites into an atmosphere, each will be identifiable.

The Future Holds: While they are up there, the three Sprites on the International Space Station will be transmitting data back to Earth, and when they are returned to the researchers in several years, they will be examined for damage. Floating through space can be a dangerous business, and this experiment will help them deduce how Sprites would handle a real-life deployment.
(via PhysOrg)

Image credit: Cornell Space Systems Design Studio

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology
  • Durant S.

    ” … and when they are returned to the researchers in several years,” … How will this return be accomplished ?

  • http://@cozezientwitter,FB Mirek Heikkila

    Wow.. i hope this technology will be used responsibly. i already have a sinking feeling when one word pops up in my head… SPAM…. can u imagine thousands of these little guys from who knows from where, countries/people.. Who will own them and can u regulate them? what if another country decides they want to use these for military purposes.. Can u imagine a scenario of countries shooting each others “stamps” in space…

    Great Article!

  • Veronique Greenwood

    @Durant, this is part of the Materials International Space Station Experiment: NASA’s site says that if there’s a return vehicle available, they’ll bring the pallet of experiments down. If not, it can be discarded, as 80% of the data can be retrieved remotely. But as the experiment isn’t going to end until after the last space shuttle run, if it’s ever brought down it will have be via another vehicle.

  • solar power

    Wow, that was a great read. In conclusion, someone who actually thinks and knows what they are talking about. Quite difficult to determine of late, especially on blog sites . I bookmarked your web blog and will make sure to keep returning here if this is how you always post. Thanks, keep it up! .

  • David

    What I want to know more about is the power source. Solar? Battery? A combination of the two? The radio signal must be terribly weak. Maybe they’ll need a planet-sized radio array to receive the signals once they do set these things loose in space. Then, I really don’t know much about radio other than the fact that it isn’t all that reliable. I remember, 2007 I think, solar flare activity on our sun disrupted a lot of wireless communications here on Earth. We had a couple of employees in South Florida whose wireless networks were offline for two days then started working again. I think the idea is very cool but receiving the radio signals will probably be the biggest challenge to overcome, in my opinion.


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