Why is NASA interested in microchip satellites? Economics, pure and simple. Space flight is a pricey endeavor, and it costs many thousands of dollars per pound to launch satellites and other payloads into orbit. So the smaller the satellite, the cheaper it would be to deploy it - or to deploy a swarm of satellites, each weighing about one-tenth of a gram, for the cost of launching one full-sized satellite.
Slightly larger satellites the size of grapefruit, called "CubeSats," have been successfully launched, but Peck's "ChipSats" are roughly the size of a fingernail (and thus us would have very different flight dynamics).
Peck relied on students (two undergraduate and one graduate student) to build the ChipCats using mostly commercial parts, which, he says, have become so high-performance in recent years that "they have far outstripped what the aerospace industry has at its disposal." His group has also partnered with Draper Labs to work on future prototypes.
While each ChipSat is identical in design and transmits at the same frequency, Peck says there are crucial differences between them that he and his colleagues will be able to distinguish between the three micro-satellites while monitoring the transmitted data back on earth. This experiment is a proof-of-principle project, and if it works, Peck hopes to one day see swarms of thousands of these tiny devices launched with future missions. If that happens, scientists will need to be able to tell them apart.
"Their small size allows them to travel like space dust," Peck said of the advantages to using ChipSats in Cornell's press release. "Blown by solar winds, they can ‘sail' to distant locations without fuel. We're actually trying to create a new capability and build it from the ground up. We want to learn what's the bare minimum we can design for communication from space."
Image credit: Cornell University