18 April 2014
The launch Friday of SpaceX's Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket to the International Space Station (ISS) is important for at least three primary reasons. First, because the vehicle carries about 5,000 pounds of supplies (including food and new spacesuits) to ISS aboard its Dragon capsule. The station currently houses a six-man crew -- Oleg Artemyev, Alexander Skvortsov and Mikhail Tyurin of Russia; Rick Mastracchio and Steve Swanson of the United States; and Koichi Wakata of Japan.
The second reason is that the mission will attempt to recover the first of the Falcon 9's two stages. Once the stages separate minutes after liftoff, the first stage will be instructed to re-ignite its engines and slowly descend to the Atlantic Ocean where SpaceX engineers will attempt to recover it and use it again on a future launch, thereby saving lots of money. If all goes well, this would be a critical step in the development of reusable launch vehicles (RLVs) that could dramatically reduce the cost of space launches and conceivably transform today's crop of expendable launch vehicles (ELVs) into dinosaurs -- almost overnight.
The third reason -- and potentially the most fascinating of all -- is that the Falcon 9 is carrying 104 tiny satellites known as "ChipSats" -- smaller even than the 2-5 pound "CubeSats" many universities have been launching during the past decade. These new satellites (designated "Sprite"), built by Cornell University, weigh about .02 pounds and are roughly the size of a postage stamp -- one square inch. Each Sprite carries its own power, sensor and communications systems on a printed circuit board. It has a micro-controller, a radio transmitter and solar cells.
According to a recent press release from the NASA Ames Research Center: "ChipSats such as the Sprite represent a disruptive new space technology that has the potential to both open space access to hobbyists and students and enable a new class of science missions."
Think about it. We now have satellites that are smaller than an iPod Nano. The idea of building and launching millions of these satellites is no longer a pipe dream, and so neither is the idea of the average person owning his or her own satellite. It's not clear yet how we would use these satellites on a daily basis (perhaps for secure "cloud" storage), but the consumer applications would obviously come.
About two decades ago, I had a long conversation with Rick Fleeter, who founded a small satellite manufacturer called AeroAstro in Herndon, Virginia. Neat guy, Rick... rode his bike to work every day. Brilliant too, an aerospace engineer. Rick told me that he foresaw the day when it would be common for people to own their own satellites in orbit. Back then, the notion was kind of silly. Not so much anymore.