October 11, 2011

Grad Student Aims to ‘Democratize’ Space Technology

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Zac Manchester grad embarked on a campaign Oct. 4 to raise $30,000 in an effort to launch 100 chip-sized satellites into outer space. With his project, he said he hopes to lower the cost of space exploration and make it accessible to anyone.

“The idea is to make it so that anybody can have their own satellite,” Manchester said. “A lot of people have portrayed the project as a vanity thing for people that have enough money. I tend to think of it as democratizing space technology.”

Over the last several years, Manchester and several collaborators created a small and inexpensive spacecraft called Sprite. According to his website, each satellite costs “a few hundred dollars” to build and launch into orbit.

While the current prototype can only transmit a few bits of information, Manchester said that future versions will be capable of much more.

Manchester describes the Sprite as a “shrunken down Sputnik,” noting that the small satellites are equipped with a radio transceiver, solar cells and a microcontroller similar to that on larger spacecrafts.

“We are basically doing a technology demonstration to prove that it is possible to fly something this small in space,” Manchester said. “There is nothing revolutionary in terms of hardware on the satellites. It is all stuff you can buy online and nothing on it is custom made.”

The satellites will be launched into low-earth orbits. The orbital lifetimes of the satellites are still unknown, according to Manchester. Sprites can stay in space from two days to a week but they will return to earth quickly to avoid the buildup of space debris, Manchester said.

While Manchester said that this line of research has been going on at Cornell for six years, he and his colleagues are the only ones currently pursuing the idea.

“I started working on this project when I was a junior undergrad,” Manchester said. “This idea has been talked about since the early ’90s, but people threw out the idea before it could be tried.”

Manchester has advertised the project on Kickstarter, an online funding platform for creative projects. While $30,000 is the minimum amount of funding needed to build the 100 satellites, additional funds will be necessary for their launch, according to Manchester.

As of Oct. 11, 51 people had backed the project on Kickstarter, pledging a total of $10,665.

Original Author: Alyson Warhit