Back in August, billionaire Richard Branson announced a coming "shakeup" in the satellite industry thanks to his forthcoming LauncherOne low-orbit delivery system. Instead of the estimated $50 or $60 million it currently costs to launch satellites into space, Branson's private company would offer a comparable service for only $10 million.
While these cost savings are phenomenal for anyone with a major satellite to launch, they're still extremely cost-prohibitive for the everyday scientists just looking to conduct some experiments in orbit.
Enter the ThumbSat, which as its name implies, is a micro-satellite measuring just 16 inches across and equipped with a HD camera, battery, GPS transmitter, and an experiment of your choosing. Aerospace engineer Shaun Whitehead tells Wired that he came up with the idea as a means to give the everyday person a shot at sending experiments into space. Instead of millions, each ThumbSat will cost about $15,000 to launch into low-Earth orbit (roughly 180-300 miles above the planet).
"We get slowed down by old-school ways of thinking," he said. "I hope that ThumbSat accelerates progress in space, inspires everyone to look up."
ThumbSat will receive its first big test later this year when 20 of the micro-satellites will be launched into space. The initial group includes a group of NASA engineers studying gravitational waves, three teenage sisters conducting experiments on sea monkey eggs and algae, and an artist/graphic designer who will "deploy magnetized fluids and shape-memory alloys."
And lest you think these micro-satellites will lead to a planet surrounded by junk, Whitehead deliberately gave each ThumbSat a lifetime orbit of only 7 to 8 weeks. After that, each one will burn up harmlessly after reentering the atmosphere.
As for what people should do with them, he only has one answer: Don't be boring.
"One of the first (and most boring, to me) applications that people suggest with ThumbSats is taking ordinary images of Earth," he wrote in a paper on the technology. "If that’s your main interest, there are far better platforms than ThumbSat."