A typical spacecraft costs about millions, or even billions of dollars. That’s the cost of a typical spacecraft made by NASA. But what if you minimize its size to the dimensions of a Matchbox car? That would make things a lot cheaper, right? That's the idea behind an aspiring new satellite notion developed by researchers at Arizona State University (ASU). Their small SunCube platform is what's called a femtosat or femtosatellite, meaning a tremendously small satellite that weighs less than just 100 grams in total (counting any mini payload or fuel).
Image Credit: Charlie Leight/ASU Now
On the scale of miniaturized satellites, the femtosat is as small as it gets – even smaller than microsatellites (10–100 kg), nanosatellites (1–10 kg), and the picosatellites (100 grams to 1 kg). And those modest extents would make the SunCube not only inexpensive to build, but also significantly cheaper to launch, theoretically taking individual space exploration – space exploration! – within grasp of pretty much anybody.
The lead researcher Jekan Thanga, head of the Space and Terrestrial Robotic Exploration (SpaceTREx) Laboratory at ASU said:
"With a spacecraft this size, any university can do it, any lab can do it, any hobbyist can do it,"
The SunCube is about just 3 centimetres in each direction, and because it weighs almost nothing, the launch expenses are astonishingly approachable. According to Jekan Thanga and his team, it would cost nearly US$1,000 to propel a SunCube to the International Space Station (ISS) or $3,000 to venture into low-Earth orbit.
Sending one of these SunCube into outer space would be marginally more affordable at about $27,000, but if matched with conventional launch costs running at about $60,000-$70,000 per kilogram, it's definitely achievable.
SunCube project was announced at an ASU event thisweek, and their paper clarifies how the technology could offer a practical standard for anybody interested in getting individually involved with space science.
Obviously, these modules does not have much to offer and can’t get to Pluto any time soon, but they are equipped with a radio, sensors, cameras, and tiny solar paneling to deliver a nonstop power source, you've got the ingredients of a spacecraft that might monitor Earth or other bigger satellites or space stations, or could be even used by students and supporters to send minute experiments into space.
"There's a whole community out there interested in this idea of low-cost, swarms of disposable spacecraft. It's like your own GoPro in space. That would give you quite the front-seat view in space. We can show the world we can fly in space," he said. "Being an active person involved in a space mission – it's the next domain in exploration."