$10,000 satellite made from AA batteries could help reduce space debris

The low Earth orbit (LEO) has become a space junkyard.
Sejal Sharma
SBUDNIK, a loaf-sized satellite
SBUDNIK, a loaf-sized satellite

Brown University 

The cost of building a satellite is astronomical. Space-qualified parts have to be bought, which don’t come cheap and often take time to arrive because of supply chain issues. After months and years of research and aerospace engineers tiresomely building the satellite piece by piece, the spacecraft is ready to be launched. And the launch alone costs anywhere between $10 million to $400 million, by some estimates. But it doesn’t end there. This is followed by the satellite’s repair and upkeep, which comes with an enormous budget.

Sending things into space is tough and costly.

But this very notion was challenged by a team of graduate and undergraduate students from Brown University, which built a satellite on a shoestring budget. The satellite is called SBUDNIK, a wordplay on the first artificial satellite sent into space by the Soviet Union.

This young team of researchers not only managed to send their satellite into space in June last year, piggybacking on Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket, but they believe, based on a new analysis of data from Air Force Space Command, that their satellite could be part of an effort to reduce space debris in orbit.

Space debris poses a threat to all space vehicles

We can’t see it through the naked eye, but there are 6,000 tonnes of material floating around in low Earth orbit (LEO) alone. There are millions of small and large pieces of space junk flying at the speed of 18,000 miles per hour, seven times faster than a bullet. Most satellites remain in orbit for a period of 25 years or more, and that just means that more and more space debris will be collected and stored in space, which poses a grave threat to other satellites orbiting.

Built on a budget of $10,000, SBUDNIK, a bread loaf-sized cube satellite, was made using off-the-shelf products like AA batteries and $20 microprocessors. The students at Brown added a 3D-printed drag sail, made from Kapton polyimide film, which popped open like an umbrella up in space and is recording photos of Earth and sending back temperature data.

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The team of researchers hopes that similar sails can be added to other satellites or scaled up to larger projects in the future in order to cut costs and minimize the space debris load.

Rick Fleeter, an adjunct associate professor of engineering at Brown, said, “The large complex space missions we hear about in the news are amazing and inspiring, but they also send a message that space is only for those types of specialized initiatives. Here, we’re opening up that possibility to more people. We’re not breaking down all the barriers, but you have to start somewhere.”

The project is a result of a collaboration between researchers at Brown’s School of Engineering and the National Research Council of Italy. It is also supported by D-Orbit, AMSAT-Italy, La Sapienza-University of Rome, and the NASA Rhode Island Space Grant.

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