A rendering of the SkyCube.
Tim DeBenedictis, a San Francisco engineer, entered the space race on the day of the last manned flight of the Space Shuttle. "It was very sad, and I said, we live in San Francisco. This is the middle of tech land. Surely we can do something more exciting." And with it was supposed to launch this morning on an Antares rocket this morning from a NASA facility in Eastern Virginia bound for the International Space Station, before the mission was delayed to the 9th thanks to higher than normal solar flares. When it does go up, in addition to regular supplies and scientific apparatuses, the rocket carries a tiny metal cube piggybacking along like a flea on a sailing ship.
It's called the SkyCube, and the 10 centimeter cubed satellite is as much an only in San Francisco story as Karl the Fog or pro-nudity protestors. DeBenedictis, who has astronomy software like SkyVoyage iPhone app, began the project as a campaign on Kickstarter. Almost three thousand backers raised $116,000 to fund it. In exchange for sponsorship, backers have written tweets for the SkyCube to broadcast from orbit.
Getting into space is just the first step. "The SkyCube gets delivered to the ISS and they'll store in onboard for a few months," says DeBenedictis. "NASA has a bank of spring-loaded cannons that will dump into orbit. At that point, which will be in the spring, we're a free floating space craft. We'll pop out our solar panels, deploy our antennae, and it's either going to be great or silent, in which case there will be a lot of tears and hair-pulling."
If all goes well, the 4-watt powered cube will start pumping out tweets and taking pictures of the Earth with an onboard camera. SkyCube will be in operation for 90 days. "That's the duration of our broadcast license from the FCC," says DeBenedictis. When it's time to leave orbit, it will inflate an onboard balloon to seven feet across, which will produce enough drag to pull it from orbit after about twelve days. "It will reenter the atmosphere and burn up like a meteorite. That's a successful mission."
Although SkyCube certainly is cool, should DeBenedictis be worried about the triviality of it? After all, its launch comes on the heels of the Chinese Chang'e 3 mission to the moon and unconfirmed reports that Iran had sent and returned a monkey from orbit. Is the American space program in danger, then, of amusing itself to death? Are we tweeting instead of taking charge? DeBenedictis doesn't deny that many of the tweets will be banal, though some, he says, like the one by parents in memory of their dead son will be emotional too. But there's a larger point to the whole thing. "Sputnik just send Morse code and that shook people up. SkyCube is tiny but it represents something huge. I don’t think we are Neil Armstrong, but we are trying to wake people up. The American space program has been sleepy. It’s remote, removed. People like it, but it’s not participatory. Twitter may be banal, but it’s yours." Besides, the funding model that SkyCube used has already been appropriated by Richard Branson and Sergey Brin to launch their own asteroid mining project.
Check back for updates on SkyCube on tomorrow.