Date: October 31, 2011
Title: Sprite: A Spacecraft for All
Podcaster: Maurizio Morabito, FBIS
Organization: Omnologos Ltd.
Links: More details about the Sprite spacecraft are available at the website
Other links – http://www.bis-space.com/2011/10/24/2950/join-the-bis-in-space
Description: Space at $300 apiece.
Bio: Maurizio is an experienced electronics and computing technologist and scientist, and published journalist and technical and scientific author in English and Italian with a variety of interests, including the study of international relations, economic and social development factors, the energy sector and space technologies. Maurizio has recently been accepted as Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society, the world’s longest established organization devoted solely to supporting and promoting the exploration of space and astronautics.
Hello and welcome to another podcast by Omnologos. My name is Maurizio Morabito. It is the year 2051 and there is a tiny spacecraft orbiting Jupiter. It is using an effect discovered in the XIX century, an effect known to us as the Lorenz Force. It means that a charged particle can be effected by a particular force in an electromagnetic field. In this case the charged particle is the spacecraft itself. The electromagnetic field is Jupiter’s, that mean the strongest in the Solar System apart the Sun’s. This tiny spacecraft has been picking up speed thanks to the Lorenz Force when suddenly the onboard computer decides to switch off the charge and then, finally free, the spacecraft can depart for the stars, having reached thousands of kilometers per second.
This is a possibility, a very real possibility, regarding the Sprite spacecraft, a concept so revolutionary the best uses are still to be discovered. The Sprite spacecrafts in fact are so cheap, individuals can own one or even more than one. The deadline if you want one is December 3rd, 2011. There is a way to participate in fact.
Check out the links above.
Each spacecraft is only one square centimeter in size, that means each side is less than half an inch; and very importantly, the weight is only 7.5 milligrams, that is 2/10 of 1/1000th of an ounce. However, thanks to miniaturization, and there’s been lots of miniaturization in the last 40, 50, even maybe 60 years. This very tiny spacecraft will still be a complete spacecraft, it will have with its own antenna, it will have a computer, an onboard computer that is actually a microcontroller (an MSP430 from Texas Instrument for those in the know). It will have a radio and solar cells. Potentially it will also have space for cameras and all kinds of sensors.
Being so tiny, as I said it’s extremely cheap. Currently it is estimated at $300 each. Of course the more are built, the less each one of them will actually cost. One possibility for launch is actually to put them in the CubeSat, that is a standard, small and cheap way to launch things into orbit. Simply the CubeSat will open in orbit and release each of the thousands of Sprite spacecrafts onboard.
Behind the idea of the Sprite spacecraft is a graduate student in Aerospace Engineering at Cornell University called Zac Manchester. This project is actually picking up enthusiasm and among the organizations that are supporting it there is the BIS, the British Interplanetary Society of which I am a proud fellow.
Founded in 1993, the oldest space organization still in its original form, the BIS has been so far mostly about advocating the exploration of space. Thanks to Sprite it will also be one organization that will have sent something into space. The idea that is mostly investigated by the BIS committee for Sprite is the idea of a solar sail. Once again Sprite is very small but is incredibly light. The pressure of sunlight could propel it in quite a significant way.
There are other possibilities and we are only bound by our imagination. One example is sending thousands of Sprites, maybe millions of them in interplanetary orbit. This way we could easily have a three-dimensional sampling of the interplanetary magnetic field for example, which each Sprite providing a single point of measurement but all of them showing us something that is quite impossible to achieve with any other concept of spacecraft.
Other possibilities: we could sprinkle many of these Sprites in the Martian atmosphere, or in Titan’s atmosphere. There is a website called Centauri Dreams that actually what I spoke about at the beginning: having Sprites use the Lorenz Force and the electromagnetic field of Jupiter to be able to travel outside of the Solar System. Anyway, this is going of course to be the future. Let’s think about what is available now. The first version of Sprite cannot do much. It can transmit its name, actually, it can transmit four characters of data.
Future version could of course include any type of sensors that can be fit in the small size of the Sprites, and you can already think of fitting thermometers and cameras. All the Sprites are expected to come back to Earth in a few days, if only to avoid the problem of space debris, as if that would make any difference.
I expect there’s going to be quite a few surprises. We do not actually know the dynamic behavior in the top of the atmosphere by these very tiny fragments. For example maybe some of them will gently fall on Earth instead of burning up in the atmosphere. Others could be self-sustaining and remaining forever at a particular height.
There is something very special about Sprite and it’s the possibility to participate to it, the possibility of having one’s own spacecraft, even if it will only last a few days. Now, I am happy to say that a launch is definitely going to happen because the original idea was to have 100 backers and there are already 179. Donations can start from one dollar. If you give $25 there will be your name printed on one of the Sprites. With $75 you get a replica of the Sprite sent to your house (don’t worry about it, as I said it’s only a square centimeter, a quarter of a square inch, actually even less than that). For $300 you can have your own, you can sponsor the building of your own spacecraft. You can even go for more. $1000 provide a development kit, so you can decide what message will be sent by your Sprite, and there is a guide on how to build a ground station to be able to pickup the very faint signal and decode it.
For $5000 one can get a VIP tour of the Mission Control in Ithaca, NY and access to the launch. And sadly, for $10,000 it could have been possible to push the launch button. I say sadyl because actually it has already been taken. The situation so far (as I said the funding phase will be stopped on Saturday, December 3rd) is that 39 people have pledged $25 or more, 41 people have pledged $75 or more, 50 people have pledged $300 or more and will have their own spacecraft. We have 18 backers of $1,000 or more (that should provide some coverage if they all build and use a ground station). Nobody has yet accepted the $5,000 pledge but as I said there is already one person that will deploy all the Sprites by pushing what obviously will be a big red button.
It would be nice to have more people on this project. If there would be 400 sponsors this launch could be happening in 2013 with its own launch. If 1,000 people became so-called Space Pioneers then there would be custom microchips made so that will mean a further shrinking of the spacecraft. In theory, as written on the Sprite website, every schoolchild could have one day their own spacecraft to explore the Solar System. Now of course there are still many problems that need to be solved. This is after all a very pioneering endeavor. There are also many people with many reasons…always at the ready with many reasons to show that Sprite is useless, that problems are so big that they can never be solved. To that I can only reply that somebody at one point believed that only 640KB would be quite enough for a computer to have.
It is very easy not to do something: simply don’t do it. What is more difficult is to find a way to do it. Sprite promises to be a revolution, possibly opening the field of space exploration to thousands of people. Let’s join in.
This is a podcast by Omnologos. Thank you for listening.
End of podcast:
365 Days of Astronomy
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