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Personal satellites that fly into space

Unwrapping devices like smartphones and tablets is sure to bring people joy on Christmas Day. Some future-oriented folks may even get a 3-D printer or a toy drone.

But what about a personal satellite?

Zac Manchester is one of the many people trying to make that device a reality. Next fall, his KickSat project plans to launch 250 cracker-size satellites into space, and someday, he believes, these gizmos will find their way under the tree.

He wants to develop gear that's "cheap enough for average people to build and fly their own satellite ... I'm trying to make the space Arduino."

He's talking about cheap Arduino circuit boards. Used mostly for earthbound robots, Arduino has been one of the technologies fueling the do-it-yourself tech movement. Free software and plummeting hardware costs have made designing and building new gizmos that were once the fantasies of "Star Trek" a reality.

Search around the Internet and you'll find guides and instructional videos on how to build everything from automatic plant waterers to remote-controlled drones.

Space travel has been no exception. Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and his company SpaceX, along with countless researchers and weekend warriors, have stepped in to fill the void left by NASA's closure of the space shuttle program.

Now working out of NASA's Ames Research Center, Manchester decided to finance his project through crowdsourced funding site Kickstarter. Illustrating the DIY community's hunger for new space-exploration tools, people donated over $74,000 - more than double the $30,000 Manchester had asked for. (You can learn more about his project online at

To get the 250 "Sprites," as the mini-satellites are called, into space, a container will be placed inside the SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, which is used to resupply the International Space Station. Before it reaches that destination, Falcon 9 will release the container to operate on its own.

The little gizmos are comprised of a radio transceiver, solar panels for power and a very small computer to store information and operate the sensors - all crammed onto a surface the size of a small cracker. Once Manchester and team have maneuvered the container into the correct position, they'll release the Sprites, like a fish releasing eggs.

The Chronicle caught up with Manchester to ask him a few questions. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: OK, so what are the Sprites going to do?
A: On this mission, the Sprites will carry gyroscopes and magnetometers (a fancy compass) so that we can measure their spin and orientation relative to the Earth's magnetic field. We're primarily trying to show that the Sprites can survive in space and communicate with ground stations. Our eventual goal is to make the Sprite a general purpose platform for any sort of chip-scale sensors people want to put on them.


Q: What are you doing with the extra money from the Kickstarter campaign?
A: The most important capability that we're adding thanks to the extra funding is "attitude control," the ability for the (container) to turn, spin, or point itself. We're going to use the attitude-control system to make sure the Sprites are pointed at the sun before we release them, which will help ensure that their solar panels can generate enough power.


Q: What are we supposed to do with a personal satellite?
A: There is so much educational value. I'd love to get these into schools. Let them run with it, and do whatever they want with it. They could set up their own ground station, attach sensors and do any experiment they want. We have instructions on a DIY ground station on our website.


Q: How hard are they to build on your own?
A: All of the designs and code are freely available online. You can hand-assemble your own for around $20 if you have the right tools and some patience. Or you can send the designs to a number of companies that will manufacture one for you.


Q: What has Elon Musk done for your field with SpaceX?
A: A big part of what SpaceX is doing is trying to reduce the cost of putting things into space by bringing mass production into the launch vehicle industry. That will certainly help future missions like ours and anyone else who is trying get things into orbit on a tight budget.


Q: NASA has closed its space shuttle program - what does that mean for do-it-yourself space exploration?
A: It was always extremely expensive and difficult to get anything launched on the space shuttle, which excluded most DIY stuff. I'm hopeful that NASA's new focus on lower-cost commercial launch vehicles will help more DIY projects get into space.


Q: Besides your research, what's your favorite example of DIY space travel?
A: Copenhagen Suborbitals. It's a couple of guys from Denmark who are building their own rocket and manned capsule to fly a person into space. They've already had several test launches and look pretty serious.


Q: And finally, if you could explore one planet, which would it be?
A: Mars looks to be the most habitable place in the solar system for humans besides Earth. But I'd also like to check out Europa, which is a moon of Jupiter that is thought to have a large ocean underneath its icy surface.
Caleb Garling is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail:


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