Microscale Infinite-Impulse Spacecraft

Dust in our solar system experiences a surprising lifecycle. For very small particles, solar pressure and electrostatic forces can compete with gravity to create highly non-traditional orbits. Some dust finds a stable orbit in which to live out its existence; some dust calmly lands on the surface of planets like our own, and some dust is energetically ejected from our solar system altogether, embarking on interstellar trajectories.

Fe cosmic dust. STEM image, 11 µm. (NASA – L2021G21 CDC V.15 1997)

Fe cosmic dust. STEM image, 11 µm. (NASA – L2021G21 CDC V.15 1997)

Dust particles vary from a few molecules to 100 µm in size and have a mass smaller than a few micrograms. At these mass scales, the acceleration due to what would be considered perturbation forces on larger bodies can no longer be neglected. In fact, we propose that they be harnessed and controlled to enable new technologies and missions. Motivated by dust’s unique behavior, we seek to study the orbital dynamics of extremely small bodies and pursue the development of a spacecraft small enough to capitalize on these kinetics. 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 2cm x 2cm x 2mm. Using matched filtering techniques, it can close a communications link from a 500km orbit. 

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 onboard 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