Washington, Apr 11: Conducting space missions may soon be within your grasp as scientists, including one of Indian-origin, are developing a tiny spacecraft that may allow hobbyists to launch space probes at radically cheaper costs.
The spacecraft, called SunCube FemtoSat, is a 3cm cube being developed by Jekan Thanga, assistant professor at Arizona State University and a team of undergraduate students including Aman Chandra.
Thanga envisions a "constellation of spacecraft" - a swarm of them could inspect damaged spacecraft from many angles, for example. Launch and launch-integration costs currently run into USD 60,000-70,000 per kilogramme. "These high costs put out of reach most educational institutions and individuals from the ability to build and launch their own spacecraft," researchers said.
Launch expenses for the SunCube FemtoSat will cost about USD 1,000 to go to the International Space Station (ISS) or USD 3,000 for flight into low-Earth orbit. Earth escape will cost about USD 27,000. Parts cost for a SunCube FemtoSat should run in the hundreds of dollars. A garage hobbyist could literally fly their own mission, researchers said.
One example is the solar panels. They are not available off the shelf in this size, so researchers cut them from scraps sold at a huge discount by manufacturers. "There's a whole community out there interested in this idea of low-cost, swarms of disposable spacecraft," Thanga said. They are getting smaller and smaller, thanks to smartphone tech, which has miniaturised everything.
"We're interested in tackling the space access problem. What if we can have students send experiments into space? With something as small as this, you can make mistakes and send again," Thanga said. Thanga sees the femtosat as a starting point for educators, researchers and scientists, and policy makers. He envisions femtosats being sold on e-commerce websites one day.
The femtosats will help provide hands-on design, integration and testing experience middle school and university students, researchers said. Researchers can use miniature centrifuges to perform artificial-gravity experiments, with fluids, solid particles and for biochemical and pharmaceutical research. Femtosats may also be used for space imaging.