In mid-June, NASA announced the award of two contracts with Deep Space Industries in conjunction with the agency’s plans to work with private industry in the exploration and harvesting of asteroids. One of these contracts caught my eye immediately. It involves small payloads that can ride along to supplement asteroid missions, and it’s in the hands of NASA’s former Chief Technologist, Mason Peck, a Cornell University aerospace engineer. Peck’s work at Cornell’s Space Systems Design Studio has led to the development of Sprites, fully functional spacecraft each weighing less than a penny. You can think of a Sprite as a spacecraft on a chip without any constraints from onboard fuel.


You can see where this fits in with the current theme of building smaller spacecraft and sending them in swarms to investigate a particular target. You may have already run into KickSat, a citizen science project involving hundreds of proof-of-concept spacecraft in low Earth orbit for assessment of their performance and re-entry characteristics. KickSat grew out of a KickStarter campaign from 2011. The diminutive spacecraft are 32x32x4mm in size, each weighing less than 7.5 grams, designed to be released from the larger KickSat, a CubeSat modified and enhanced for Sprite deployment, on command from the ground.

Image: Aerospace engineer Mason Peck, whose Sprite concept shrinks spacecraft to the size of micro-chips. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

KickSat was launched on April 18th of this year, the plan being to release more than 100 Sprites, which would have become the smallest satellites ever to orbit the Earth. Unfortunately, the KickSat satellite reentered the atmosphere without Sprite deployment, leading to talk of building KickSat-2. The latest KickSat-2 update from Zachary Manchester, a member of Mason Peck’s lab at Cornell, is here. But as the new satellite takes shape, let’s talk about those Sprites. For while the KickSat experiments could provide broad spatial coverage of near-Earth phenomena, there is nothing to prevent the use of sprites to create sensor nets for deep space.

Modes of Propulsion

In Exploring Space with Chip-sized Satellites, an article in IEEE Spectrum in 2011, Peck explained that radiation pressure from the Sun offers one way for Sprites to move around the Solar System. They’re too small for onboard propellant, but the ratio of surface area to volume ensures that they can be driven just like a tiny sail. Peck explains the idea in relation to a much larger sail, the Japanese IKAROS:

If a Sprite could be made thin enough, then its entire body could act as a solar sail. We calculate that at a thickness of about 20 micrometers—which is feasible with existing fabrication techniques—a 7.5-mg Sprite would have the right ratio of surface area to volume to accelerate at about 0.06 mm/s2, maybe 10 times as fast as IKAROS. That should be enough for some interplanetary missions. If Sprites could be printed on even thinner material, they could accelerate to speeds that might even take them out of the solar system and on toward distant stars.


Image: Size of the Sprite satellite. Credit: Space Systems Design Studio.

Earlier this week we looked at Jordin Kare’s work on SailBeam, a concept involving vast numbers of tiny ‘micro-sails’. The Sprite has an affinity with Kare’s thinking, but unlike Kare, who was going to drive his microsails with a multi-billion watt orbiting laser, Peck is also exploring how charged Sprites might interact with the magnetic fields that surround planets. The Lorentz force bends the trajectory of a charged particle moving through a magnetic field. Can we put a charge on a Sprite?

In his lab work at Cornell, Peck and colleagues have tested ways of exposing Sprites to xenon plasma, mimicking conditions in Earth’s ionosphere. The Sprite can use a power supply to put a potential between two wires extending from the chip, letting plasma interactions charge the device. The charge is maintained as long as the Sprite continues to power its wires, so we can turn it on and off. If we can manipulate the charge aboard a Sprite at will, then imagine exposing a stream of charged Sprites to Jupiter’s magnetic field, 20,000 times the strength of Earth’s.

Jupiter as particle accelerator? The idea seems made to order, particularly since we’ve been examining particle accelerators of a vastly different order of magnitude — remember the 105 kilometer accelerators we talked about in relation to Cliff Singer’s pellet propulsion concepts. The nice thing about Jupiter is that we don’t have to build it. Here we have a way to accelerate one Sprite or 10,000 of them to speeds of thousands of kilometers per second, at which point the chips could shed their charge and be flung off on an interstellar journey.

Peck adds that getting the Sprites up to speed might itself take decades, and the journey to the nearest star would still be a matter of several centuries. But 300 years to Alpha Centauri beats any solar-sail-plus-Sundiver-maneuver mission I’ve ever seen, and unlike the admittedly faster beamed lightsail missions (some of Forward’s missions get down to decades), the Sprites take advantage of a form of propulsion that doesn’t require vast infrastructure in space.

Near-Term Issues

We’re talking, of course, about future generation Sprites, tiny spacecraft that have been built to surmount the problems Peck’s team is now trying to solve. Take the issue of damage along the way, which we had to think about both with Cliff Singer’s pellets and Gerald Nordley’s self-steering ‘snowflake’ craft. Better build many and be prepared for some losses. Lightweight Sprites have no radiation shielding, leaving the electronics vulnerable, and micrometeorites within the Solar System pose their own threat. The way to overcome such problems in the near-term is to send Sprites in large numbers, assuming a degree of loss during the mission.


Image: Artist’s conception of a cloud of Sprite satellites over the Earth. Credit: Space Systems Design Studio.

For missions deep into the Solar System and beyond it, though, we have to solve these problems. But I love the idea of using sunlight or the Lorentz force to accelerate these tiny payloads, which also have a natural synergy with CubeSats. Remember that The Planetary Society’s LightSail-1 is testing sail deployment from CubeSats, potentially creating a way to deliver a CubeSat laden with Sprites to other planets in the Solar System. Before we think of scaling to interstellar, why not think in terms of legions of Sprites sending back data from the surface of Mars, or placed into orbits that could provide deeply detailed maps of the solar wind and flare activity?

As we do this, we can be learning how best to deploy future Sprites, and how to fabricate everything from spectrometers to load sensors and basic cameras on a chip. Peck notes in the IEEE article that almost everything a spacecraft has to do can be managed with semiconductors, from solar cells for power, capacitors for energy storage and the various requirements of memory and processing. Take these ideas down to much smaller scales and the idea of swarm probes exploring the outer planets begins to resonate, with obvious implications for the kind of payloads we will one day want to send to Alpha Centauri.