Crowd-funded Satellite Falters After Launch; Solar Radiation Blamed

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A blast of solar radiation appears to have doomed a recently launched crowd-funded satellite, which now looks like it will re-enter the atmosphere and burn up before it has a chance to fulfill its mission release more than 100 tiny satellites, or sprites, the project’s university-based sponsor said.

KickSat was designed by Zachary Manchester, a graduate student at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. The satellite, funded by 315 donors via the Kickstarter crowd-funding website, launched as a secondary payload April 18 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard a Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Falcon 9 rocket. The rocket’s primary payload was SpaceX’s Dragon cargo capsule, which successfully berthed with the international space station April 20.

KickSat reached its intended orbit of 355 kilometers after launch.

KickSat, a three-unit cubesat, was successfully deployed to orbit at an altitude of 355 kilometers. It was supposed to release a cache of postage-stamp-sized sprite satellites, each containing a microcontroller, a radio transmitter, and solar power cells, on May 4.

But according to a note posted by Manchester May 3 on the Kickstarter website, something caused the satellite to reset its master clock, making the satellite believe it would not be ready to deploy the sprites for another 16 days. He speculated that solar radiation triggered the clock reset.

“It appears the reset happened some time in the morning of Wednesday, April 30,” Manchester wrote. “That would put the deployment some time in the morning of May 16. Unfortunately, it looks like KickSat will most likely reenter and burn up before the 16.”

Operators at the satellite’s Cornell-based mission control facility cannot remotely command KickSat to deploy its sprites. The spacecraft’s batteries have to reach a power level of about 8 volts for that to happen, and it doesn’t appear that they will do so before the satellite falls out of the sky, Manchester said.

Manchester nonetheless promised to “continue tracking KickSat over the next few days” and to post further updates on Kickstarter and through the project’s email list, which is not restricted to donors.

Between October and December 2011, KickSat received $74,586 via Kickstarter, more than double its funding goal of $30,000.

“I promise that this won’t be the end of the KickSat project,” Manchester wrote in his May 3 note.