Exploring space with chip-sized satellites

August 1, 2011 | Source: IEEE Spectrum

Sprite spacecraft-on-a-chip (credit: Zak Manchester/Cornell University)

Researchers at Cornell University have created a prototype miniature spacecraft called Sprite that fits everything a satellite might need on a 1-square-centimeter integrated circuit.

A diversity of payloads can be fabricated to ride on a chip, including basic spectrometers, load sensors to measure particle impacts, chemical sensors, and simple CMOS cameras. Sprite prototypes weigh about 10 grams, but their successors will ultimately weigh between 5 and 50 milligrams and will likely be able to carry just one simple sensor each, forming distributed sensor networks.

The space shuttle Endeavour carried three of the prototypes to the International Space Station on its final mission. It will take a couple of years to find out how these first chips withstood the rigors of space.

The researchers plan to launch smaller Sprites into orbit on their own, where they can be used to test new forms of propulsion that could ultimately take them to other planets.