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MICROSAT BLITZThe next big thing in space is really, really small

by Staff Writers
Tempe AZ (SPX) Apr 11, 2016
The SunCube FemtoSat and the three-tiered version have a propulsion system, data
collection and communications capability. The three-tiered one also has space f
or a payload. Image courtesy Charlie Leight/ASU Now.
Going into space is now within your grasp. A tiny spacecraft being developed at
Arizona State University is breaking the barrier of launch cost, making the pric
e of conducting a space mission radically cheaper.
"With a spacecraft this size, any university can do it, any lab can do it, any h
obbyist can do it," said Jekan Thanga, assistant professor in the School of Eart
h and Space Exploration?The School of Earth and Space Exploration is an academic
unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. and head of the Space and Ter
restrial Robotic Exploration (SpaceTREx) Laboratory.
Thanga and a team of graduate and undergraduate students - including Mercedes He
rreras-Martinez, Andrew Warren and Aman Chandra - have spent the past two years
developing the SunCube FemtoSat - Femtosatellite or "femtosat" is usually applie
d to artificial satellites with a wet mass.
Wet mass in this context means the weight of the spacecraft and any fuel it will
use to propel itself around while in space. between 10 and 100 g (0.35 and 3.53
ounces). It's tiny - 3 cm by 3 cm by 3 cm. Thanga envisions a "constellation of
spacecraft" - many eyes in many places. A swarm of them could inspect damaged s
pacecraft from many angles, for example.
Thanga and the School of Earth and Space Exploration will host a free kickoff ev
ent Thursday night introducing the SunCube, followed by a panel discussion with
scientists and space-industry professionals on the logistics, opportunities and
implications of this breakthrough technology.
Launch and launch-integration costs currently run into $60,000-$70,000 per kilo.
The Russians, the Chinese and the Indians all charge about the same amount, too
. That can get pretty pricey for a full-size satellite.
"These high costs put out of reach most educational institutions and individuals
from the ability to build and launch their own spacecraft," ASU's team wrote in
a paper detailing the new model.
Launch expenses for the SunCube FemtoSat will cost about $1,000 to go to the Int
ernational Space Station or $3,000 for flight into low-Earth orbit. (Earth escap
e will cost about $27,000.)
"That was a critical price point we wanted to hit," Thanga said. When SpaceX's F
alcon Heavy rocket lifts off later this year, Thanga expects costs to drop by as
much as half.
Parts cost for a SunCube FemtoSat should run in the hundreds of dollars. A garag
e hobbyist could literally fly his or her own mission. One example is the solar
panels. They aren't available off the shelf in this size, so students cut them f
rom scraps sold at a huge discount by manufacturers.
"That's part of our major goal - space for everybody," Thanga said. "That's how
you invigorate a field. ... Getting more people into the technology, getting the
ir hands on it." SpaceTREx is a systems lab, so the team members were less inter

ested in creating a tiny spacecraft than they were solving a problem: Can lots o
f little spacecraft do the job of a single large spacecraft?
Over the two years they've worked on the spacecraft, Thanga and his grad student
s have stayed focused on miniaturization with a vision toward creating disposabl
e spacecraft for exploration.
"There's a whole community out there interested in this idea of low-cost, swarms
of disposable spacecraft," Thanga said.
And they're getting smaller and smaller, thanks to smartphone tech, which has mi
niaturized everything.
"We're piggybacking on the wave of miniaturization," Thanga said. "We're interes
ted in tackling the space access problem. What if we can have students send expe
riments into space? With something as small as this, you can make mistakes and s
end again."
Thanga sees the femtosat as a starting point for educators, researchers and scie
ntists, and policy makers. He envisions femtosats being sold on Amazon one day.
They will be able to be used for four main objectives:
+ STEM education: provide hands-on design, integration and testing experience fo
r students from middle school to university age.
+ Miniaturized versions of current experiments.
+ Experiments with miniature centrifuges to perform artificial-gravity experimen
ts, with fluids, solid particles and for biochemical and pharmaceutical research
+ Imaging. "It's like your own GoPro in space," Thanga said. "That would give yo
u quite the front-seat view in space."
Thanga is working with Erik Asphaug?Asphaug is also the Ronald Greeley Chair of
Planetary Science., professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration to ge
t a prototype into space next year with their Asteroid Origins Satellite mission
, a space laboratory that will mimic how asteroids are formed.
"We can show the world we can fly in space," Thanga said. "Being an active perso
n involved in a space mission - it's the next domain in exploration."