Students create tiny satellites for affordable space missions
Fancy your own satellite? Arizona State University is working towards making this a reality with its SunCube FemtoSat project. Smaller than a standard CubeSat, the low-cost, student-designed spacecraft is aimed at providing greater access to space for scientists and hobbyists alike.
Assistant professor Jekan Thanga and team of students have been developing the SunCube FemtoSat for the past two years. The small 3 cm3 (1.1 in3) cube weighs in at just 35 grams (1.2 oz) and a longer (3 x 3 x 9 cm, 100 g) model has also been designed, which includes payload storage space.
Each FemtoSat has its own communication, data collection and propulsion systems and is powered by solar paneling. The modules are made of off-the-shelf parts, and the solar panels were cut from scrap - sold at a discount by manufacturers. "With a spacecraft this size, any university can do it, any lab can do it, any hobbyist can do it," says Thanga. "That's part of our major goal - space for everybody."
The team says that while launching your own satellite would usually cost between US$60-70,000 per kilo, it would only cost $1000 to send a FemtoSat to the International Space Station, and $3000 to send it into low earth orbit. Leaving Earth's gravity would cost an estimated $27,000.
The FemtoSats would be packed into an orbital deployer with a "jack in the box" style system that matches standard CubeSat dimensions (around 10 cm3), simplifying the process of getting the tiny satellites into orbit.
NASA has sent 30 CubeSats into space over the last few years, with another 50 awaiting launch.
Thanga and his crew view FemtoSat as a starting point for scientists and students, and even hope the device could be available on Amazon one day. Thanga envisions four main applications for the device: hands on testing experience for students, miniaturized versions of current experiments, artificial gravity experiments, and giving users their own "GoPro in space." In addition, swarms of FemtoSats could eventually be able to do the job of larger spacecraft at a vastly discounted cost.
The team is working to get a prototype into orbit next year, piggybacking as a secondary payload on the CubeSat based Asteroid Origins Satellite mission.
Thanga discusses the FemtoSat project in ASU's video below.