Chip-Scale Spacecraft


As useful nanotechnology continues to improve, completely new approaches for space exploration become available. Chip-scale spacecraft inhabit a physical regime similar to dust particles. Perturbation forces for more massive spacecraft and space objects, such as solar pressure and electromagnetic forces, may be usefully harnessed by chip-scale spacecraft for novel space exploration.

Sprite Spacecraft and KickSat

In pursuit of this goal, we are working to create a fully self-sustaining spacecraft capable of demonstrating significant, useful propellantless propulsion by virtue of its small length scale. In collaboration with Sandia National Laboratories, we’ve developed our first prototype, dubbed “Sprite”. Sprite uses a multi-chip module architecture to achieve a form factor of 2 cm x 2 cm x 2 mm. Using matched filtering techniques, it can close a communications link from a 500 km orbit.

Sprite chip


Initial mockup of our candidate Sprite-integrated circuit.

Inspired by the success of the first Sputnik launch in 1957, we focus on a simple, feasible, but genuinely new design. For three weeks, the 23-inch-in-diameter sphere of Sputnik I broadcast its internal temperature and pressure as it orbited and hinted at the potential of artificial satellites. A half century later, we expect to duplicate Sputnik’s achievement using less than one ten-millionth of its mass. Our design packages the traditional spacecraft systems (power, propulsion, communications, etc.) onto a single silicon microchip smaller than a dime and unconstrained by on-board fuel.

Sprite technology will soon be demonstrated in orbit. Zac Manchester’s KickSat project is a privately run, crowdsource-funded effort to build and launch a 3U CubeSat that will deploy a number of printed circuit boards (PCB) to demonstrate the concept. Each PCB is capable of one-way communication, demonstrating functionality based on research at Cornell. Many people and organizations have contributed ideas, time, and resources to help make KickSat possible:

  • 315 individual backers on Kickstarter.com
  • Undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty members of the Space Systems Design Studio at Cornell University
  • NASA
  • Draper Laboratory
  • Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company
  • Michael Johnson of JA
  • Texas Instruments