When it comes to the space race, size does matter – with smaller and lighter being the preferred option. The cost to send material into space is still so high ($60,000 to 70,000 per kilogram) that miniaturization has become the keyword for private space missions.
A new micro-contender will soon be getting to low Earth orbit. The KickSat-2 is 3.2 square centimeters (0.5 square inches) and weighs about 5 grams. The chipsat can transmit and receive small signals, and has been selected by NASA as part of its CubeSat Launch Initiative.
“We’re extremely excited,” said Brett Streetman, an aerospace engineer at Charles Stark Draper Laboratory in Massachusetts, to Nature. “This will give flight heritage to the chipsat platform and prove to people that they’re a real thing with real potential.”
A fleet of 100 KickSat-2 will be housed within a CubeSat, which will act as a mothership and deploy them in orbit. The KickSat-2's were supposed to be aboard the next Cygnus launch on July 6, but due to issues with their experimental license from the FCC, the team couldn't make their deadline.
In a message to the backers who crowdfunded the project, KickSat-2 engineer Zac Manchester said: “NASA's Launch Services Program continues to be hugely supportive of KickSat and has assured us that we will be able to fly on the next available launch once our FCC license is in place.”
Testing this technology could be fundamental to jumpstart the future of interstellar exploration, such as the Breakthrough Starshot project. A constant worry during space missions is the possibility of catastrophic failure from unknown sources, but chipsats are cheap enough to be produced and launched in large numbers, which means they can be thrown into "risky" environments.
“You don’t want to make an exquisite satellite. You just launch a million; if only 1 percent survive then that’s fine. You put statistics on your side,” added Mason Peck, an aerospace engineer who leads Cornell’s chipsat team.
KickSat-2's upcoming launch will provide interesting insights into this technology. Regardless of the results, there are still several upgrades necessary before the chipsats can be turned into an interstellar tiny craft. The road to Alpha Centauri is still a long one.