A setback for KickSat

KickSat illustration

An illustration of the KickSat spacecraft deploying its payload of Sprite satellites, only 3.5 centimeters on a side. A problem with the KickSat’s master time may mean the satellite reenters before it can deploy those Sprites. (credit: KickSat)

Among the secondary payloads placed into orbit on last month’s Falcon 9 launch was a CubeSat named KickSat. The spacecraft was one of the first space-related crowdfunding successes: Zac Manchester raised nearly $75,000 on Kickstarter in 2011 for the satellite, far exceeding his goal of $30,000. KickSat’s unique aspect, beyond the source of funding, was its mission. Once in orbit, the satellite would deploy more than 100 “Sprites”: tiny spacecraft that are essentially circuit boards measuring 3.5 by 3.5 centimeters but equipped with a communications system, solar cells, and other components.

The spacecraft’s launch started a timer that, 16 days after launch, would command KitckSat to release the Sprites. If everything had gone as planned, the timer would have reached zero this afternoon, triggering the Sprite deployment. However, in a blog post Saturday, Manchester said that a “hard reset” of KickSat’s main computer on the morning of April 30 also reset that timer. Manchester said that the cause of the reset wasn’t known, but radiation, rather than a power issue with the spacecraft, was the most likely reason.

Assuming that the computer on KickSat doesn’t reset again, the timer would hit zero and release the Sprites on the morning of May 16. However, Manchester noted, there’s a problem: KickSat’s orbit is decaying, and it may reenter before the 16th. On the KickSat mailing list, the latest prediction has the spacecraft reentering just after midnight EDT (0400 GMT) May 16, shortly before the timer reaches zero, but with an error of plus-minus a couple of days.

Manchester said that the KickSat team has looked for ways to speed up the deployment of the Sprites, but there appear to be few options since the satellite isn’t generating enough power for its radio to receive commands from the ground. “While the situation looks a little bleak, there is still some hope that the batteries may recharge sufficiently to command the satellite,” he wrote. “There is also a small chance that KickSat could remain in orbit until the 16th, at which point the timer would set off the deployment as originally planned.” Even if those efforts fail and KickSat reenters before deploying its Sprites, he wrote, “I promise that this won’t be the end of the KickSat project.”

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