Pocket Spacecraft concept diagram (via pocketspacecraft.com)
Those who watched The Jetsons (original 1962 version) as a child undoubtedly thought that they could one-day travel to distant planets (albeit quickly) either in a space bus or the family space/aero car. Alas, our hopes of doing so within our lifetimes is pretty much nil but we may just be able to do the next best thing without leaving the comfort of our own homes (no cloud-based apartments either). A group of engineers, scientists and designers has devised a rather simple way of exploring celestial bodies using a spacecraft about the size of a CD and as thin as a normal sheet of paper. Known as the Pocket Spacecraft, the ‘spacecraft, lander and somewhat of a rover’ was designed using a polymide-based (the same used for flexible printed electronics) disc as the spacecraft’s base. The material is actually a great choice as polymides are extremely durable, lightweight, flexible and are resistant to both heat and chemicals, which is why it’s incorporated into todays advanced space suits worn by astronauts. To keep the disc from warping from solar winds and entry onto celestial bodies, the disc is outfitted with a nickel-titanium memory outer ring that has the extra-added benefit of being used as an antenna. A thin-film solar cell provides power for the spacecraft’s SoC, sensors and instruments that are all printed directly onto the polymide disc. A conformal protective coating (unknown as to what kind) is then applied to the electronics to protect the disc from the hazards of space travel such as gamma ray bursts and exploding super nova that can wreak havoc on the crafts delicate parts (ok maybe not so much against gamma rays).
Each disc weighs about a thirteenth of an ounce, which makes it possible to pack them in by the thousands onto the spacecraft’s CubeSat ‘mother ship.’ The CubeSat is actually the ‘rocket’ the Pocket Spacecraft travel in that propels the thin craft to the body of interest. The interesting thing about the CubeSat is that it can travel into orbit on just about any launch platform (America, Russian, etc.) as it weighs very little and does not require that much space in terms of cargo. Depending on the exploration scenario, the CubeSat can be outfitted with different forms of propulsion including solar (using solar sails) as well as electrolysis (converting water to hydrogen with solar as the ignition system). Once launched, users can track their Pocket Spacecraft on their mobile devices or PCs using their Pocket Mission Control app that lets users monitor data collected in a real-time environment. The app also has an augmented reality feature that lets users track their craft by holding their mobile devices up at the sky (like Google Sky Map).
Pocket Spacecraft is currently funding their thin tiny craft on Kickstarter to get enough funding to not only manufacture the craft but also retain a payload space upon a NASA launch vehicle in the near future. Once launched, the mother ship will release the craft into low earth orbit in an experiment that simulates entry into a planetary atmosphere in an effort to see if it can survive the fall (or in this case flutter). Once the experiment has been completed, the CubeSat will again hitch a ride into low earth orbit where it will be released and travel to the moon where it will again release the disc-shaped craft in an effort to land on the celestial body. So far, the team has raised over $35,000 US with an end goal of roughly $433,000 with 48 days left to go. The project has many levels of backing from the simplistic (e-certificate) to the most expensive which includes a spacecraft replica and two separate Pocket Spacecraft for both the earth re-entry test and the moon landing. While it might not be like flying around the solar system in your own space car, it is the closest most of us will ever have to explore the cosmos.
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