Imagine a spacecraft small enough to fit in your hand. Now imagine that it costs $30 in materials and can be built from off-the-shelf parts available at your local technology store. It may sound incredible, but such a spacecraft already exists. It’s called the Sprite, and it was designed and built by Mason A. Peck, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and his lab—the Space Systems Design Studio.
The Sprite is the size of a Wheat Thin cracker and weighs about 4 grams. Within that tiny package, Peck and his team have packed a propulsion system, sensors, communications system, memory, and processing system, all using over-the-counter available technology. “Sprite is meant to be a general-purpose space-exploration platform in the same way a laptop is a platform,” Peck says. “You can use it for anything.”
What Sprites Can Do in Space
While a single Sprite can’t compete with something like the Hubble Space Telescope, which has a huge aperture for optics, a swarm of many Sprites can take distributed measurements across large distances and over time. For instance, a swarm could be sent to investigate the sun’s corona, the bursts of plasma that can destroy communications satellites and Earth-based power grids. “We can send a million Sprites for the same mass as a traditional spacecraft,” says Peck, “and they can measure things like plasma density and potential magnetic field at a million different locations. When that information comes back to earth, we can stitch it together in a very new model of those physics.”
Sprites could be used to explore asteroids as well. Asteroids have just enough gravity for something as small as a Sprite to stick, Peck explains. “Once they’re in close contact, the Sprites could take pictures of the surface so we could get a precise idea of the color—the spectrum—of the asteroid. From that we can tell the asteroid’s chemical constituents, whether there’s water, platinum, or other metals of interest for mining.” And once the Sprites were on the asteroid, their transmitters would allow us to track its orbit, should humans ever want to mine it—or in case there’s a risk it might collide with Earth.
Citizen Space Science
As part of his commitment to citizen space, Peck's lab purposefully designed the Sprite so it could be built with off-the-shelf technology. “Every one of us has the opportunity to do science, to do engineering,” Peck says. “Every aspect of Sprite technology we have fully shared in a public forum online called GitHub. Anyone can download the info and make their own Sprite. We’re doing our part to democratize space exploration.”
“People forget that innovation doesn’t always demand complexity. The very basic, fundamental ideas we have are game changing because they’re so simple, and yet no one saw them before.”
Peck also relied on individual citizens to crowdfund the first attempt to launch Sprites in space. He and his lab designed a 3U CubeSat, a carrier spacecraft about the size of a loaf of bread, called KickSat, and filled it with 100 Sprites. The money raised through KickStarter funded KickSat’s launch in 2014. KickSat was designed to open and release the Sprites once it reached orbit, but as a consequence of last-minute change in the launch rules, the Sprites were never released. Peck didn’t give up, however. He and his lab hope to fulfill their promise to their citizen funders by launching KickSat2 in the fall of 2016 with a new batch of 128 Sprites.
Who Funds What? Traditional Questions versus Open-ended Questions
Much of Peck’s research is funded by government agencies, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the United States Air Force, or by prime contractors in the aerospace industry like Northrup Grumman and Lockheed Martin. He also partners with small, aerospace companies based in and around Ithaca, New York, such as Cayuga Astronautics and the new startup, Ursa Space Systems Inc., founded by Adam Maher (MEng ’07), one of Peck’s former students.
These types of funders were not interested in supporting KickSat, however, which is why Peck turned to crowdfunding for this particular project. “Often government agencies and traditional funders don’t ask open-ended questions like, ‘What is a new technology that can change the world?’” Peck says. “Instead, they start by asking the questions they know there are answers to. They’ve got finite time and resources, and need to make sure the money they spend is consistent with their priorities. But Cornell gives us the freedom to pursue ideas that no one is yet asking for because no one knows these things can exist, and when we have that kind of freedom, we can make a lot of progress.”
While KickSat is what Peck calls “blue sky research,” he also does plenty of research supported by traditional funders such as NASA. Currently the government agency is sponsoring the Space Systems Design Studio’s research in On-orbit Autonomous Assembly with Nanosatellites (OAAN)—two 3U CubeSats that will dock with each other in orbit. “OAAN demonstrates how to construct objects in space,” Peck explains. “We’re basically making space Lego.” NASA’s typical docking technique requires hundreds of people and millions of dollars of technology. Peck’s space Lego approach, on the other hand, concentrates on the basics—simple components like springs and magnets.
“There’s fundamental research involved in this project—algorithms and physics,” says Peck. “But we’re also designing technology. We’re making progress in systems research, looking at the big-picture architecture and asking, ‘How can we change our design approach to accommodate other solutions?’ One way we’re doing that is by using the guts of a satellite phone as our communications system.”
From Science Fiction to Aerospace Engineering
Peck’s love of creativity and outer space was born from childhood, growing up as the son of science fiction writer Richard Peck. “I was surrounded by my dad’s library of thousands of science fiction books,” he says. “I grew up reading them, and I took them seriously. I always wanted to be an aerospace engineer, but I didn’t know that’s what it was called. I originally got a degree in English because that’s what my dad had done, and I thought that was a way to be creative. But then I discovered engineering was where I could contribute to unsolved problems, where there was room for innovation and unfettered thinking.” Peck elaborated on some of his most innovative ideas in a talk he gave at TEDx SchechterWestchester in 2014.
Unfettered thinking is helping Peck and his lab create a wide range of aerospace engineering firsts, including a revolutionary propulsion system that uses water for fuel. They have been working on the design since 2011, but when NASA issued the CubeQuest Challenge in 2014, asking engineers to design the first CubeSat to orbit the moon, Peck saw a chance to demonstrate his lab’s propulsion system in space. It uses an off-the-shelf toy electrolyzer to separate the oxygen from the hydrogen in the water and turns it into a gaseous mixture that is combustible. If Peck and his team’s design passes muster, their CubeSat will launch along with other contenders in 2017-18.
“We’re trying not to be sophisticated,” Peck says with satisfaction. “We’re going back to basics, and it’s down in the mud with the basics that there’s lots of room for innovation. People forget that innovation doesn’t always demand complexity. The very basic, fundamental ideas we have are game changing because they’re so simple, and yet no one saw them before.”