The Future Is Small

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December 5, 2016 | Originally published by Date Line: December 5 on

For three decades, the symbol of the U.S. space program was the mighty Space Shuttle, an 86-ton reusable spacecraft that hauled astronauts, equipment, and supplies into orbit 135 times before being retired in 2011.

Among candidates for the next symbol might be the shiny aluminum box located on a clean room assembly bench in Georgia Tech’s Engineering Science & Mechanics (ES&M) building. Made of space-grade metal, the 50 x 50 x 30 centimeter structure is rapidly being transformed into Prox-1, a micro satellite that will itself become a launcher for an even smaller satellite known as LightSail-B. Next fall, the two spacecraft will orbit the Earth together to study automated trajectory control required for close proximity flying in space.

Beyond studying control issues, Prox-1 will help its mostly student crew learn how to design, build, launch, and operate spacecraft. The 60-kilogram satellite will also be Georgia Tech’s first entry into the era of small spacecraft — a phenomenon made possible by the same miniaturization and capability enhancements that put smartphones into nearly everyone’s pockets.

And LightSail-B, designed and built by the Planetary Society, will highlight the role of CubeSats — tiny satellites just 10 centimeters square that can be constructed for as little as $20,000 apiece. These spacecraft, built in a standardized template to hitch rides on larger space vehicles, are giving universities and other organizations the kind of space access once reserved for NASA, the Department of Defense, and big corporations.