Sending stuff to space is very expensive, so sometimes to think big you have to think small. With this approach in mind, Arizona State University students have developed the next generation of miniature satellites.
The team created SunCube FemtoSat, a 3-centimeter-cubed (1.1-inch-cubed) satellite that weighs about 35 grams (1.2 ounces). It has communication, data collection, and propulsion systems and it’s powered by tiny solar panels.
The team, led by assistant professor Jekan Thanga, also constructed a bigger version (3 x 3 x 9 centimeters, 100 grams) that includes some payload space for small experiments. The SunCubes are constructed with "off-the-shelf" parts, and the solar cells were made from scrap manufacturers selling at discount, making these tiny satellites incredibly cheap to construct.
“That’s part of our major goal – space for everybody,” Thanga said in a statement. “That’s how you invigorate a field… Getting more people into the technology, getting their hands on it.”
Based on current costs ($60,000 to 70,000 per kilo), you could send a FemtoSat to the International Space Station for $1,000 and to low-Earth orbit for $3,000. This might not sound affordable yet, but the rise of commercial space companies could make the costs drop.
“There’s a whole community out there interested in this idea of low-cost, swarms of disposable spacecraft,” Thanga added
“We’re interested in tackling the space access problem. What if we can have students send experiments into space? With something as small as this, you can make mistakes and send again.”
Thanga and his team envision Femtosat being used by educators, students, and researchers across the globe. Constructing them is not harder than many other school projects, and if parts, assembly and space delivery become readily available, there would be no obstacle for members of the general public to launch their own satellite.
“We can show the world we can fly in space,” Thanga said. “Being an active person involved in a space mission – it’s the next domain in exploration.”