Smallest-Ever Working Satellites Reach Orbit

How small can you make a satellite? The first satellite, Russia’s Sputnik, weighed in at about 183 pounds (83 kilograms). Today, many smaller space projects are taking place thanks to inexpensive CubeSats, but a company called Breakthrough Starshot has something even smaller in mind. It has successfully tested tiny satellites called Sprites. Each one is only 3.5cm across — about the size of a postage stamp — and weighs just 4 grams.

The Sprites certainly don’t have the same capabilities as a full-sized satellite, or even a CubeSat. This deployment was seen by Breakthrough Starshot as a proof-of-concept. The satellite looks like a small circuit board, because that’s essentially what it is. Attached to the board are sensors, a low-power transmitter, a microprocessor, and a cute little solar panel. It’s got everything it needs to be a satellite.

Breakthrough Starshot sent six Sprites up on an Indian rocket that was also carrying several larger satellites. The Sprites technically hitched a ride on two of those, the Latvian Venta satellite, and the Italian Max Valier satellite. Each one has a Sprite mounted to the outer hull, and the Max Valier carries four additional Sprites in a cargo container. These are intended to become free-floating satellites when released.

Ground stations in California and New York have picked up signals from the Sprites, which is an impressive feat. The tiny solar panel only produces 100 milliwatts of power. That’s barely enough to power a single router antenna in your house. Unfortunately, this may be as far as the first Sprint mission goes. The team can’t yet tell if it’s hearing from both Sprites at different times or only one. Additionally, the team running the Max Valier satellite is having trouble communicating with the spacecraft. If it failed to deploy its antenna, there might be no way to deploy the remaining Sprites.

The “KickSat” would have deployed a swarm of Sprites, but it could not be used due to safety concerns.

Breakthrough Starshot says it’s happy with the outcome even if it can’t deploy more Sprites. The main goal was to confirm the nano-satellites would operate in space and beam a signal down to Earth. With that done, the designers are turning to more ambitious ideas, like deploying a communications network of nano-satellites or scanning asteroids. Similar devices could even form the heart of an interstellar mission to Alpha Centauri with solar sails thanks to their low weight.

That’s all well off in the future, though. For now, Breakthrough Starshot is looking to get more Sprites into space so it can study the advantages and potential dangers of nano-satellites. There is some concern that so many small, unguided objects in orbit would act as a cloud of space debris that could cause damage to other objects.

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