It has only been two weeks since the successful Kickstarter campaign of the ARKYD space telescope, and I have already come across another promising proposal. And let me say this right at the beginning: I have donated the largest sum of money to this project among all the ones I have supported, and by a huge margin. I have two reasons for it. First and foremost, I think this idea is worth our attention and support, and I will explain why shortly. Secondly, unlike ARKYD where you had a campaign backed by considerable media attention—most likely due to the group of influential people in the board of Planetary Resources—this project is really down to earth; just a few university professors who want to make their dream a reality. And since I tend to sympathise with that dream, I am willing to risk my money in hope it will one day become a reality, and I hope that after explaining this idea, at least some of you will follow suit.
First, let us discuss what cubesats are, as they are what drive this Kickstarter campaign. In short, cubesats are nano satellites built by using off-the-shelf components, and launched to space by basically piggybacking other, usually governmental, primary payloads. They are relatively low-cost, allowing non governmental agencies, such as universities, to do space research without spending millions of dollars on it. All this, however, comes with a price. Since cubesats get to space as secondary, non-essential payloads, they have strict requirements regarding size and weight. Cubesat are measured in units, where one unit is a 10x10x10 centimeter cube—hence the name—with a weight limit of 1.33 kilograms. Although cubesats can be up to 3 units large, therefore allowing them to perform quite complicated missions, up until now they all lacked one important component: propulsion. Cubesats are put into a low Earth orbit and usually drift there until they eventually burn up in the atmosphere, usually within a few years. They are inherently trapped in Earth orbit, and that is what this Kickstarter campaign would like to remedy.
A group of scientists at the University of Michigan believe to be able to engineer a small, plasma engine, called the CAT—CubeSat Ambipolar Thruster—that could potentially enable cubesats in the future to escape Earth’s gravity and enter interplanetary, and even extrasolar space. This is a domain that, up until now, belonged to only the most robust and successful government programs. With the promise of the CAT engine, however, universities, schools, basically anyone with a small to modest investment will be able to send small satellites beyond Earth; to Mars, to Saturn, and beyond; the opportunities are limitless. I think this is a huge deal, and if this Kickstarter has even the slightest chance to make mobile cubesats a reality, I am willing to risk my money by supporting it, and I urge you to follow suit. It is a worthy and very exciting cause. If you wish to take a closer look, here is the link to the Kickstarter Campaign