Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Sad Tale of the KickSat Femtosatellites


It was a fine idea and they had a good plan, and just enough funding. But there are enormous graveyards dug exclusively for good ideas in our world. I'll warn you now that this tale has a sad ending.

The project was envisioned by Zachary R. Manchester. The idea was that there were advantages in the  low power and low mass of femtosatillites and picosatillites that might make orbital communications more economical and efficient. The idea isn't completely new. The airforce issued a report on the topic back in 2007. There was also project West Ford back in 1961, but let's not get into that.  He got his crowdfunded through Kickstarter. Zac asked for $30k. His Kickstarter campaign raised $74,586.


KickSat was not a production network. It was a test. Each Sprite femtosatellite was supposed to be able to transmit just a few bytes. I've read some of the submissions that were online and most were under 16 bytes in length. The little Sprites themselves were only about the size of a saltine cracker. The payload of 104 Sprite satellites was carried on a CubeSat on an ISS commercial resupply mission, SpaceX CRS-3 on April 18, 2014. But things went wrong quickly.  On April 30th the microcontroller managing the master clock reset due to a technical issue. This woudl delay the release of the individual satellites. This delay was detrimental. On May 3 Sac announced the impending doom of the project. More here.

The Master clock problem meant that the CubeSat couldn't release the 104 Sprite satellites before it burned up in the atmosphere. The unit was not designed to allow ground control to send a release command. Thsi is because the uplink radio used to trigger deployment were unable to power up. On May 14th CubeSat reentered the atmosphere and burned up. Accounts record that "virtually" all sprites were lost. However there was at least one message received.