The original Kicksat was launched aboard the SpaceX CRS-3 resupply flight to the ISS. (Credit: SpaceX)

The original Kicksat was launched aboard the SpaceX CRS-3 resupply flight to the ISS. (Credit: SpaceX)

The first Kickstarter project I ever backed was Kicksat. The man behind it, Zac Manchester, is therefore — at least in a way — responsible for the large amounts of money I’ve spent on the site since then. I guess I really shouldn’t hold that against him, or at least forgive him.

Kicksat was a technology demonstrator for a new type of satellite. Itself just 30cm×10cm×10cm it was serving as a mothership for tiny single-board spacecraft called Sprites — about two thirds of its volume was a deployer mechanism for the much smaller spacecraft.

The Sprites themselves are tiny, at 3.5cm×3.5cm. The single board houses a microcontroller — a Texas Instruments MSP430 — alongside a radio and solar cells. They’re capable of carrying single-chip sensors: thermometers, magnetometers, gyroscopes, or accelerometers. Designed to be deployed hundreds at a time in low Earth orbit, if CubeSats were the first signs of a big change in the way space is being used, the Sprites are the first signs of the next revolution, a real democratisation of space.

One of the many Sprite spacecraft that were launched onboard Kicksat. The Sprite is a "chipsat", a proof of concept design the shrinks an entire satellite down onto a single chip.

One of the many Sprite spacecraft launched onboard the original Kicksat. The Sprite is a “chipsat” — a proof of concept design that shrinks an entire satellite down onto a single chip. (Credit: Cornell University)

The first Kicksat ran into problems during deployment of it cargo of Sprites. However, with the recent announcement that the replacement Kicksat has been awarded a launch slot by NASA, I sat down and talked to Zac Manchester about the history behind the Kicksat project, and the upcoming launch.

I also recently talked to  Ariel Waldman — the founder of and the global director of Science Hack Day — about the implications of the rapidly decreasing cost of access to space. She talked about the game that, along with Jane McGonigal, she had run at the Institute For The Future on the future of personal satellites, where they had asked “…what will you do when space is as cheap and accessible as the web is today?” and went ahead and distilled down some of the forecasts and interesting patterns that she had seen emerging from that exercise,

Distributed cubesatting is where a lot of people got excited. When thinking about tiny satellites, a lot of their potential might be more in what they can do as a swarm, than what they can do individually. Many people forecasted how distributed small satellites could combat effects of climate change. We’re now seeing examples of distributed sats come to life with Planet Labs, and projects out of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program like Swarm Flyby Gravimetry. In the game, people forecasted that this approach to small satellites could give way to “massive co-creation” — that the agile nature allows for increased creativity.

A common concern was how the pervasiveness of CubeSats would affect our mental health — both positively and negatively. Some felt that increased access to space would raise our awareness of our insignificance, and thus drive up depression/suicide. Others felt the orbital perspective of seeing the Earth as one place would have a positive impact on how humans interact with each other. I still find this to be a fascinating concept to contemplate. As we increase our access to space, how does this affect our psychology on a global scale?

However, what has excited me the most about the slowly increasing accessibility of small satellites is how it has the potential to bring about a citizen science renaissance. To bring back science as something that anyone can play around with and explore, with or without a formal science education. I think we’re on the right path, but there is a lot more work to be done that I have yet to see people fully tackle in terms of making satellites truly accessible to society-at-large. Getting the cost down and the tech/hardware optimised is only half the battle.

With the arrival of what have become known as the ‘new space’ companies — and the possibility of bringing launch costs down to just a fraction of today’s prices — it’s interesting to speculate what may happen if building and launching a CubeSat was about the price of an iPod, because even at today’s launch prices CubeSats are starting to drive the industry. The swarm cometh.