It’s a Briefcase! It’s a Pizza Box! No, It’s a Mini Satellite

For years, space was dominated by just two nations, the United States and the Soviet Union. Their designs were big: Rockets grew taller than 20-story apartment buildings. Satellites expanded to the size of city buses. Spy satellites unfurled antennas nearly as large as football fields.

The debut of the iPhone in 2007 signaled to a new generation of satellite-makers that their creations, too, could shrink. Early models were called PhoneSats because their electronic cores were made of smartphones. The satellites cost just $7,000 apiece.

Today, relatively small rockets send aloft satellites the size of handbags, knapsacks and pizza boxes. The spacecraft teem with tiny sensors, circuits, lenses, motors, batteries and antennas. Last year, a single launch in India cast into orbit 104 satellites, shattering the previous world record for deployment.

On Dec. 3, a SpaceX rocket carried aloft 64 tiny spacecraft, including the second for the Irvine High School students, from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. It was the first time an entire SpaceX mission had been devoted to the lofting of small satellites. CreditSpacex/EPA, via Shutterstock

The spacecraft came from India, Israel, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates, as well as from two American companies, including Planet Labs. Ghana, a West African nation, entered the space age last year with a satellite the size of a can of beans. Outer space is being democratized.

Typically, the new spacecraft cost so little to build and send aloft that universities and even high schools are getting into the act. On Saturday, Nov. 10, students from six high schools in Irvine, Calif., cheered as their tiny craft was carried into orbit. Its mission is to study Venus.

“It’s been really great,” said Brent Freeze, an aerospace specialist who advises the 160 students. “It’s a way to get smart young people to talk to each other and work together.”

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