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Tiny Sprite Spacecraft

Tiny Sprite Spacecraft

Tiny spacecraft, known as “sprites” contain microchips and have the ability to supply power, communications and even propulsion. Three prototypes of these postage stamp sized spacecraft will be sent up to the space station for testing on the next shuttle flight. Eventually, the hope is to test the usability of releasing a large cloud of sprites that can float and sail in the solar wind giving them the ability to navigate and control their trajectory.

Chip satellites — designed to blow in the solar wind — depart on Endeavour’s final launch – [cornell.edu]

A group of Cornell-developed, fingernail-sized satellites may travel to Saturn within the next decade, and as they flutter down through its atmosphere, they will collect data about chemistry, radiation and particle impacts.

Three prototypes of these chip satellites, named “Sprite,” will be mounted on the International Space Station after the space shuttle Endeavour delivers them on its final flight, which is scheduled to launch at 3:47 p.m. EDT on Friday, April 29.

Tiny Spacecraft Point to Future Sails – [centauri-dreams.org]

What Peck has in mind with the spacecraft he calls ‘Sprite’ is ultimately to create a satellite with different flight dynamics from other spacecraft. Sure, we can miniaturize our electronics and create satellites with small form factors — CubeSats come to mind — but Peck’s craft call up a different analogy:

“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.”

Sprite Spacecraft – [spacecraftresearch.com]

Project Overview

Dust in our solar system experiences a surprising lifecycle. For very small particles, solar pressure and electrostatic forces can compete with gravity to create highly non-traditional orbits. Some dust finds a stable orbit in which to live out its existence; some dust calmly lands on the surface of planets like our own, and some dust is energetically ejected from our solar system altogether, embarking on interstellar trajectories.

Dust particles vary from a few molecules to 100 µm in size and have a mass smaller than a few micrograms. At these mass scales, the acceleration due to what would be considered perturbation forces on larger bodies can no longer be neglected. In fact, we propose that they be harnessed and controlled in order to enable new technologies and missions. Motivated by dust’s unique behavior, we seek to study the orbital dynamics of extremely small bodies and pursue the development of a spacecraft small enough to capitalize on these kinetics. In pursuit of this goal, we are working to create a fully self-sustaining spacecraft capable of demonstrating significant, useful propellantless propulsion by virtue of its small length scale. In collaboration with Sandia National Laboratories, we’ve developed our first prototype, dubbed “Sprite”. Sprite uses a multi-chip module architecture to achieve a form factor of 2cm x 2cm x 2mm. Using matched filtering techniques, it can close a communications link from a 500km orbit.

“A Millimeter-Scale Lorentz-Propelled Spacecraft” – [aiaa.org]

We evaluate Lorentz force actuation as a means of propellantless propulsion for millimeter-scale spacecraft by examining the acceleration and plasma-charging benefits associated with small length scales. A fully integrated “spacecraft on a chip” is described in terms of each of the traditional spacecraft subsystems, incorporating relevant research in microfabrication. Our candidate spacecraft design periodically pulses a RF beacon for ground-based orbit determination and powers a microchip payload. The spacecraft develops a net negative charge for Lorentz orbit augmentation by using solar power to differentially charge the surfaces of a sphere and filament. Having generated a multidimensional fit of plasma-sheath data generated through NASA’s Charging Analyzer Program (NASCAP), we size and optimize these two charge-carrying geometries, accounting for plasma capacitance and power requirements. In a circular orbit at 350 km, our design achieves a charge-to-mass ratio of -2.5 μC/kg resulting in a daily deviation of 18 m from a Keplerian orbit. We conclude that the Lorentz force can indeed serve as a low-mass means of infinite specific-impulse propulsion for extremely small spacecraft.

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