When the Space Shuttle Endeavor takes off this afternoon for its final mission, it is taking with it three satellites that could significantly reduce the carbon footprint of space exploration. These satellites, developed by scientists at Cornell University and nicknamed “Sprites”, are not like their massive predecessors — each one is about the size of a postage stamp. If all goes well, these little buggers could cut down on the energy and materials currently expended to drag big research satellites into space.
“Their small size allows them to travel like space dust,” said Peck. “Blown by solar winds, they can ‘sail’ to distant locations without fuel. … We’re actually trying to create a new capability and build it from the ground up. … We want to learn what’s the bare minimum we can design for communication from space,” said Mason Peck, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University. The smallest satellites previously launched were the size of a grapefruit but worked essentially the same way as larger satellites. These new chip satellites are entirely different gadgets and researchers are hoping they’ll be able to change the face of space exploration with these smaller, more efficient travelers.
The three satellites are physically identical, but each transmits to Earth differently. “That’s very important because it’s a pathfinder for something we hope to do in the future. We want to launch a huge number of these things simultaneously but still sort out which is which,” Peck noted. If this test mission goes as planned, Peck and his team hope to launch a whole slew of these little guys into space and send them in the direction of distant galaxies. One of the previous problems with deep space travel is the energy it takes to get places; these tiny Sprites solve that problem by consuming no fuel at all.