If you thought SpaceX launching 60 Starlink satellites at once was impressive, Cornell University has managed 105 small satellites. The ChipSats, called Sprites, forming a swarm of cracker-sized nanosatellites were deployed from the Kicksat-2 CubeSat on March 18, 2019 at an altitude of 300 km (186 mi) and contact was established by Stanford University and NASA Ames engineers the next day by a Cornell satellite ground station.

Under development since 2011 by Mason Peck, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and former students Zachary Manchester and Justin Atchison, the Cornell Sprite project is designed to demonstrate that it is possible to build the smallest free-flying satellites. Each ChipSat costs less than US$100, weighs only 4 grams, measures 1.4 in (3.5 cm) square, and is essentially a circuit board equipped with a short-range telemetry transmitter and several sensors.

According to Cornell, the 105-strong constellation of tiny satellites was launched from the KickSat-2, which was a Kickstarter-funded CubeSat designed by Manchester and NASA Ames that was released into orbit by the Cygnus NG-10 cargo ship after it left the International Space Station. After deployment, the Sprites were reported to be in good health as they transmitted telemetry in the 400-megahertz range using milliwatts of power.

Many of the signals transmitted were customized by patrons of the Kickstarter campaign, a few of whom were even able to track the ChipSats themselves at home using realtively inexpensive equipment.

Because the Sprites are so small, they have a very large surface-to-volume ratio, so they acted like little parachutes that caught the almost non-existent upper atmosphere, causing their orbits to decay in a few days before burning up in the Earth's atmosphere. Cornell says that this feature makes such ChipSats self-disposing, so they don't pose a risk of contributing to space debris.

"The goal of the Sprites on KickSat-2 is to demonstrate basic capabilities, one of which is communications that do not interfere with other satellites," says Peck. "In a few years, we expect game-changing scientific and commercial applications. The next generation has GPS navigation capability and can measure atmospheric behaviors, magnetic fields and so much more."

The animation below shows the deployment of the Sprite ChipSats.

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