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Kickstarter-funded satellite intrigues space buffs and radio operators

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Miniature satellites carrying ham radio are all the rage, and another highly anticipated launch may happen as early as April.

KickSat, a breadbox-size satellite in the “cubesat” family, will hitch a ride on the SpaceX Falcon 9 supply rocket, then release 104 tiny data transmitters called “sprites” into low earth orbit.

The Space X cargo ship launch was scheduled for March 30 from Cape Canaveral, is now delayed due to a radar tracking problem.

KickSat is a success story of the crowdsourcing website Kickstarter.com, which allows people to donate money to projects of their choice.

Designed by Cornell engineering student and ham operator Zac Manchester, KickSat raised $74,000 since fundraising began in 2011 – more than double the amount needed to get off the ground.

Once released into the the proper low orbit, KickSat will communicate with a ground control station at Cornell University in Ithica, New York.

Sixteen days later, ground controllers will give a radio command that opens KickSat's hatch, releasing the wafer-size sprites into orbit.

KickSat itself will carry a one watt transmitter (on 437.505 Mhz) that will send occasional telemetry about its position, temperature and other information.

Each sprite is a wonder of microcircuitry, with a controller, radio, and solar cells and capable of carrying single-chip sensors.

Sprites will each transmit on the same frequency, 437.240 MHz at very low power, but will have separate digital identities so controllers can tell them apart.

They will send a variety of short messages plus track their location and overall status, says creator Zac Manchester, on his blog about the KickSat project.

Sprites will have a short lifespan due to low orbit, but could last as long as six weeks before decaying and burning up, he said.

The idea of using bare integrated circuits as spacecraft could open up new avenues in space exploration, since these chips are extremely small, cheap, and easy to produce in large numbers.

Some scenarios suggest that thousands of these vehicles could be deployed by a single, normal-sized satellite, according to AMSAT, the amateur satellite society.

The launch, expected in April, will be carried live on NASA TV and UStream.

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