Kicksat deploying its cargo of sprites. Image credit: Ben Bishop

Apr 19, 2014 Five Cubesats and 104 Sprites launched on Falcon 9

Sen—2014 is turning out to be the year of the CubeSat. Almost 100 of the pint-sized satellites were added to launch manifests last year, and we are already seeing close to half of that figure being launched just four months into 2014. February saw the largest deployment of CubeSats ever, with 33 units being deployed directly from the International Space Station.

Friday’s delayed launch of the SpaceX CRS-3 ISS resupply mission saw an additional five units sent into low Earth orbit, being carried as part of the secondary payload. The CubeSats were attached to the Falcon 9’s second stage and released after the Dragon spacecraft had separated.

Among those five CubeSats deployed was Kicksat, which was funded using the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform. Of particular interest is Kicksat’s own cargo. Contained within the main body are a fleet of 104 even smaller satellites known as “sprites”. After the deployment of the main Kicksat, the unit is scheduled to open up and released its swarm of sprites, with each following its own orbital path. Each sprite is a 3.2 centimetres square, and contains a microcontroller, radio transmitter, mini solar panels, a gyroscope, a magnetometer and an antenna.

Backers of the kickstarter campaign were offered a variety of rewards including the right to “own” a sprite and the ability to broadcast a small, five character message via its radio transmitter. One of the early backers of the project was the British Interplanetary Society (BIS). Around a dozen members donated funds in order to buy a BIS fleet of sprites. The sucessful deployment of the sprites will mark the first time that BIS members have ever put a spacecraft into orbit. All sprites are predicted to re-enter the atmosphere within a couple of weeks, thereby eliminating the threat of space debris.Closeup of one of the sprite satellites

Close-up of one of the Sprite satellites. Image credit: Kicksat

Next on the list of was PhoneSat 2.5, which had been developed by NASA's Ames Research Center. This is the fourth in the series of PhoneSat missions and has been designed with the aim of demonstrating the feasibility of utilizing Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) electronics, specifically smartphone hardware. Smartphones make particularly good flight controllers, as they all feature a suit of sensors, gyroscopes, accelerometers and computers—in fact, it is almost as if smartphones were developed just to use as avionics platforms. They are just too perfect for the job!

The third CubeSat, known as SporeSat, is a biological science mission. Also designed at NASA Ames, SporeSat was launched with the goal of studying cell gravity sensing. The spore in question is a fern spore (ceratopteris richardii), and the experiments will all take place on a small “lab-on-a-chip” platform.

Next up was TESTSat-lite. TESTSat-lite was jointly developed by Taylor University and University of Chile. Its main objective is to monitor space weather conditions, and it achieves this via use of a plasma probe, magnetometer, and 3 ultraviolet photodiodes.  

The fifth and final CubeSat is the ALL-STAR satellite. ALL-STAR (Agile Low-cost Laboratory for Space Technology Acceleration and Research) has been designed by University of Colorado at Boulder. The aim of ALL-STAR is to prove the technology needed for the rapid creation of CubeSat missions by using simplified hardware and software interfaces. If successful, the mission will pave the way for future low-cost missions which can be developed in under six months.

All of the CubeSats had been launched with the support of the ELaNa program. ELaNa (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites) provides launch opportunities to universities who have demonstrated that their CubeSats offer scientific value. No doubt we will see many more CubeSats backed by this initiative being launched over the next few months.