Personal satellites soon may launch into sky

Caleb Garling

San Francisco Chronicle

Smartphones and tablets are becoming standard equipment for most of us. Might personal satellites follow suit?

Zac Manchester is one of many people trying to make such a device a reality. Next fall, his KickSat project plans to launch 250 cracker-size satellites into space, and someday, he believes, these gizmos will find their way under the Christmas tree.

He wants to develop gear that's "cheap enough for average people to build and fly their own satellite."

Free software and plummeting hardware costs have made designing and building new gizmos that were once the fantasies of "Star Trek" a reality. Search around the Internet and you'll find guides and instructional videos on how to build everything from automatic plant waterers to remote-controlled drones.

Space travel has been no exception. Entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk and his company, SpaceX, along with countless researchers and weekend warriors, have stepped in to fill the void left by NASA's closure of the space shuttle program.

Now, working out of NASA's Ames Research Center, Manchester financed his project through crowd-sourced funding site Kickstarter. Illustrating the DIY community's hunger for new space-exploration tools, people donated $74,000 -- more than double the $30,000 Manchester had asked for. (You can learn more about his project online at www.spacecraftresearch.com.)

To get the 250 "Sprites," as the mini-satellites are called, into space, a container will be placed inside the SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, which is used to resupply the International Space Station. Before it reaches that destination, Falcon 9 will release the container to operate on its own.

The little gizmos are comprised of a radio transceiver, solar panels for power, and a tiny computer to store information and operate the sensors. Once Manchester and team have maneuvered the container into the correct position, they'll release the Sprites, like a fish releasing eggs.

The following conversation with Manchester has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: OK, so what are the Sprites going to do?

A: On this mission, the Sprites will carry gyroscopes and magnetometers (a fancy compass) so that we can measure their spin and orientation relative to the Earth's magnetic field. We're primarily trying to show that the Sprites can survive in space and communicate with ground stations. Our eventual goal is to make the Sprite a general-purpose platform for any sort of chip-scale sensors people want to put on them.

Q: What are you doing with the extra money from the Kickstarter campaign?

A: The most important capability that we're adding thanks to the extra funding is "attitude control," the ability for the (container) to turn, spin, or point itself. We're going to use the attitude-control system to make sure the Sprites are pointed at the sun before we release them, which will help ensure that their solar panels can generate enough power.

Q: What are we supposed to do with a personal satellite?

A: There is so much educational value. I'd love to get these into schools. Let them run with it, and do whatever they want with it. They could set up their own ground station, attach sensors and do any experiment they want. We have instructions on a DIY ground station on our website.

Q: How hard are they to build on your own?

A: All of the designs and code are freely available online. You can hand-assemble your own for around $20 if you have the right tools and some patience. Or you can send the designs to a number of companies that will manufacture one for you.

Q: What has Elon Musk done for your field with SpaceX?

A: A big part of what SpaceX is doing is trying to reduce the cost of putting things into space by bringing mass production into the launch vehicle industry. That will certainly help future missions like ours and anyone else who is trying get things into orbit on a tight budget.

Q: NASA has closed its space shuttle program -- what does that mean for do-it-yourself space exploration?

A: It was always extremely expensive and difficult to get anything launched on the space shuttle, which excluded most DIY stuff. I'm hopeful that NASA's new focus on lower-cost commercial launch vehicles will help more DIY projects get into space.

(Reach reporter Caleb Garling at cgarling@sfchronicle.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, shns.com.)

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