New Space and Tech


By Keith Cowing
June 5, 2019
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Revolutionary technology often comes in small packages. CubeSats – shoebox-size satellites – transformed what kind of science and computing we could accomplish in orbit around Earth and other planetary bodies.
Now, one particular CubeSat project will usher in the next evolution of satellites. KickSat-2 is a project to demonstrate the viability of truly tiny satellites, called ChipSats or Sprites.

On March 18, 2019, over 100 of these centimeter-scale spacecraft successfully deployed from the KickSat-2 satellite, with the first signals received the following day. The successful deployment of these Sprites demonstrates that this technology will soon be ready to carry future missions into Earth’s orbit and beyond at a much lower cost than ever before.

Sprites are spacecraft created out of a circuit board about the size of a cracker, and capable of integrating computing, sensing and communication equipment. Satellites like KickSat-2’s 3.5-centimeter by 3.5-centimeter Sprites could be distributed by the hundreds or even thousands.

The scientific benefits of being able to send out a fleet of these Sprites extend from Earth all the way to the other planets of our solar system. Close to home, Sprites can reach the mesosphere, a part of the atmosphere too high for airplanes and balloons to reach, but too low for traditional satellites. Understanding this lesser-known segment of the atmosphere will help us better understand our Earth and its climate.

Beyond our orbit, these Sprites are a cost-effective way of sending communication and data collection instruments to places like the Moon, nearby asteroids or even planets like Mars.

KickSat-2 was developed and prepared for launch at NASA’s Ames Research Center in collaboration with Stanford University. The project’s predecessor, KickSat-1, had its humble beginnings as a crowd-funded Kickstarter project in 2011, with many of the same concepts carrying over to the project as it exists today.

The three-unit CubeSat is designed with two compartments, one unit to run the spacecraft, providing power, communications and data-handling, while the other two units house and deploy the Sprites. All the materials for the Sprites and the satellite bus are commercially available at extremely low costs.

KickSat-2 was deployed on the Educational Launch of Nanosatellites 16 mission through NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative. This initiative provides low-cost access to space for science and technology demonstration CubeSat projects designed, built and operated by students, teachers and faculty, as well as, NASA centers and programs and nonprofit organizations.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.