Project KickSat

Unfortunately, Project KickSat is now dormant until NASA provides a new launch opportunity. The Cornell University team behind it are currently concentrating on other projects, but should things change, the BIS will hopefully become involved again.

The Background

This was an exciting project in collaboration with Cornell University, USA. Zac Manchester was experimenting with the design, build and testing of very small and inexpensive spacecraft called “Sprites”. The aim was to have them launched into Low Earth Orbit for just a few hundred dollars each. Sprites are the size of a couple of postage stamps but have solar cells, a radio transceiver and a microcontroller (tiny computer) with memory and sensors.

Sprite circuit board

 

Essentially the capabilities of bigger spacecraft were scaled down. The first versions to be launched would have been quite primitive, with the transmission of not much more than a name and a few bits of data, but it was hoped that future versions could have included any type of sensor to fit within it, from thermometers to cameras. The KickSat itself was a CubeSat, a standardised small satellite that could host the many Sprites and launch them into space via a spring loading.
  

BIS Involvement

Sprite in its box

A Sprite with test and programming equipment as received by BIS project members

The project involved the BIS collaborating with the main ‘KickSat’ project team. Originally, around a dozen members of the BIS pledged money to purchase a BIS fleet of spacecraft. The Sprites were made in bulk in the US, and several were received by BIS members for test and programming, were upgraded to be fully functioning, and used to test the receiving equipment.

Altogether, about 10-15 BIS members were involved (see for instance the photograph in ‘Spaceflight’ Vol 55 October 2013, p.386). BIS members programmed two sprites, and the code was incorporated in at least one other, the final code uploading and Sprite test taking place in the USA.

Sprites in orbit

An impression of the Sprites in orbit


    

What Should Have Happened

This remarkable animation shows what should have happened:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I7xvQgClMf0

Once launched, a world-wide network of amateur ground stations would have tracked and recorded the radio signals to demonstrate their capabilities.

KickSat plusX

A close-up showing project leader Andrew Vaudin’s name engraved on the frame of the original KickSat that reached orbit

What Did Happen

The BIS coded Sprites were on board the first KickSat (CubeSat mothership), which reached orbit at 335 km via a Falcon 9 rocket in April 2014 (see ‘Spaceflight’ Satellite Digest-510, July 2015 p.250) and transmitted beacon signals that were received by radio amateurs. Telemetry data allowed the prediction of the orbit and re-entry on 15 May 2014 at about 01:30 UTC. On May 4th, 16 days after launch, the Sprites were due to be deployed. However on April 30th (some 12 days after launch) a hard reset of the “watchdog” microcontroller on KickSat resulted in the main timer being reset to day 1 (probably by radiation).

KickSat-2

KickSat-2

Unfortunately efforts to sort this out failed, and before the reset timer could run its 14-day course, KickSat re-entry occurred, and the Sprites were burned up inside the KickSat mothership. However BIS members Andrew Vaudin and Kelvin Long (and possibly others) did at least get their names into space for a short while.

Subsequently, both NASA and Cornell University agreed to proceed with a KickSat-2. Zac Manchester, Cornell University and NASA improved the CubeSat based on lessons learned from KickSat 1.This was originally scheduled for launch in August 2016 on Cygnus CRS OA-5, (aka Orbital Sciences CRS Flight 5). Unfortunately, the integration deadline was missed, apparently because a radio communication licence not applied for in time.

Hence the KickSat-2 spacecraft is still with NASA, but awaits another launch opportunity. However this may not be for a while, because the NASA announcement on 17/2/17 (https://www.nasa.gov/feature/nasa-announces-eighth-class-of-candidates-for-launch-of-cubesat-space-missions) of CubeSat launches for the next three years (until 2020) did not include Cornell University, nor KickSat-2.

Hence, as noted above, unfortunately the project is now dormant.

More information about Project KickSat can be found by:

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