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Artist's conception of the Kicksat deploying a fleet of tiny microchip satellites (Ben Bishop)

Artist’s conception of the Kicksat deploying a fleet of tiny microchip satellites (Ben Bishop)

Have you ever wanted to have a fleet of numerous extremely tiny micro-satellites in outer space doing your bidding? Well, if so, there is bad news for you: an experimental satellite meant to test out a new paradigm for launching multiple tiny space vehicles ended in failure earlier this month. Microsatellites have become common in low earth-orbit in recent years, but the Kicksat was a special sort of tiny satellite. Within the little 10cm by 10cm by 30cm “mothership” were 104 truly tiny space vehicles which had a flat square shape measuring only 3.5 cm square by 3 mm thick.  Each weighed about 5 grams.  The little satellites (whimsically named “sprites”) were meant to launch from the central satellite in spiral waves. Each sprite included a microprocessor, a solar cell, and a radio system—some of the tiny craft had more elaborate microelectromechanical sensors.

 

The anatomy of a "sprite" satellite

The anatomy of a “sprite” satellite

Aerospace engineers had hoped that the tiny crafts would provide useful data on the behavior of small craft in space since the behavior of materials and systems in space change based on scale (particularly solar sails—which become more efficient and viable). Unfortunately it seems that solar radiation caused the system clock to reset—thus delaying the secondary sprite launch until after the main satellite burned up in reentry. Still, the telemetry of the mothership functioned properly (and also provided a valuable lesson about the need for radiation shielding). The project may evolve into a second iteration based on lessons from the failure of the first attempt and it has provided us with an amazing computer simulation of launch (below).

The Minotaur I rocket launches from Wallops on November 19, 2013

The Minotaur I rocket launches from Wallops on November 19, 2013

Last night, the United States simultaneously fired 29 satellites into orbit at one time from a Minotaur I rocket which lifted up from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia at approximately 8:15 PM EST.  The launch was visible to viewers hundreds of miles from the launching site.  The main payload of the rocket was the U.S. Air Force’s STPSat-3, which measures various aspects of the launch and monitors the nature of outer space in an attempt to improve future satellite launches.  The 28 other satellites were “microsatellites” designed by various companies, universities, and other entities to be as small and inexpensive as possible.  One of the small “cubesats” was even put together by a magnet high school from Northern Virginia.  Since the rocket launched from Wallops, it was visible across the Northeast as it streaked into orbit (although not by me since I was at a poetry reading at Dumbo—even if I had been outside there were bridges, skyscrapers, and looming edifices in every direction).

Dangit! Launch another one, Air Force, I swear I'll pay better attention!

Dangit! Launch another one, Air Force, I swear I’ll pay better attention!

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