ASU satellite wins 2016 Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Award

September 13, 2016

ASU’s Space and Terrestrial Robotic Exploration (SpaceTREx) SunCube FemtoSat and the SpaceTREx team, headed by Jekan Thanga, assistant professor with the School of Earth and Space Exploration, have won the Popular Mechanics 2016 Breakthrough Awards in the “Space” category.  

The Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Awards recognize innovators and products that have dramatically advanced the fields of technology, medicine, space exploration, automotive design, environmental engineering and more. Jekan Thanga (right), assistant professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, worked with a team of students, including graduate aerospace engineering students Mercedes Herreras-Martinez and Aman Chandra, over two years to develop the miniature satellites. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now Download Full Image

This is the first time an ASU project has been awarded a Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Award, beating out MIT, Stanford and Princeton.

The SunCube FemtoSat is a satellite that defines a new standard for a spacecraft. It has a mass of 35 grams, it is tiny — 3 x 3 x 3 cm — and it would cost as little as $1,000 to launch to the International Space Station, or $3,000 as free flier in low Earth orbit.

It is being developed at ASU’s SpaceTREx Laboratory headed by Thanga and ASU students Mercedes Herreras-Martinez, Andrew Warren, Aman Chandra, Laksh Raura and Ravi Nallapu.

The FemtoSat advances a positive vision for the future where space missions are defined not by an elite few, or the hundreds of millions or billions of dollars it costs, but by how they inspire, educate and enable greater access to space.  

“Space exploration can advance rapidly once there is widespread interest, adoption and access by a large fraction of humanity, whose skills and talents are required to bring new and innovative thinking to the most pressing challenges in the field,” Thanga said.

Previous award winners in the “Space” category include the University of Arizona for the Phoenix Lander in 2008, NASA Ames LCROSS Lunar Orbiter and Impactor mission in 2010, NASA JPL’s Mars Exploration Rovers in 2011, NASA JPL’s Voyager Missions (for lifetime achievement) in 2012 and NASA Ames LADEE mission in 2014.

The awardees are featured in the October print edition of Popular Mechanics out in newsstands now and on the Popular Mechanics website.

Karin Valentine

Media Relations & Marketing manager, School of Earth and Space Exploration


image title

The next big thing in space is really, really small

ASU team worked for two years to shrink the costs of space exploration.
Swarms of femtosats could examine a damaged spacecraft from many angles.
"Space for everybody. That's how you invigorate a field," ASU scientist says.
April 6, 2016

ASU's SunCube FemtoSat will open space exploration to everyone, with launch costs as low as $3,000 for low-Earth orbit

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. To read more top stories from 2016, click here.

Going into space is now within your grasp.

A tiny spacecraft being developed at Arizona State University is breaking the barrier of launch cost, making the price of conducting a space mission radically cheaper.

“With a spacecraft this size, any university can do it, any lab can do it, any hobbyist can do it,” said Jekan Thanga, assistant professor in the School of Earth and Space ExplorationThe School of Earth and Space Exploration is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. and head of the Space and Terrestrial Robotic Exploration (SpaceTREx) Laboratory.

Thanga and a team of graduate and undergraduate students — including Mercedes Herreras-Martinez, Andrew Warren and Aman Chandra — have spent the past two years developing the SunCube FemtoSatFemtosatellite or “femtosat” is usually applied to artificial satellites with a wet massWet mass in this context means the weight of the spacecraft and any fuel it will use to propel itself around while in space. between 10 and 100 g (0.35 and 3.53 ounces).. It’s tiny — 3 cm by 3 cm by 3 cm. Thanga envisions a “constellation of spacecraft” — many eyes in many places. A swarm of them could inspect damaged spacecraft from many angles, for example.

The SunCube FemtoSat, designed at ASU.

The SunCube FemtoSat (top photo) and the
three-tiered version have a propulsion
system, data collection and communications
capability. The three-tiered one also has
space for a payload.

Photos by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Thanga and the School of Earth and Space Exploration will host a free kickoff event Thursday night introducing the SunCube, followed by a panel discussion with scientists and space-industry professionals on the logistics, opportunities and implications of this breakthrough technology. (Find event details here.)

Launch and launch-integration costs currently run into $60,000-$70,000 per kilo. The Russians, the Chinese and the Indians all charge about the same amount, too. That can get pretty pricey for a full-size satellite.

“These high costs put out of reach most educational institutions and individuals from the ability to build and launch their own spacecraft,” ASU's team wrote in a paper detailing the new model.

Launch expenses for the SunCube FemtoSat will cost about $1,000 to go to the International Space Station or $3,000 for flight into low-Earth orbit. (Earth escape will cost about $27,000.)

“That was a critical price point we wanted to hit,” Thanga said. When SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off later this year, Thanga expects costs to drop by as much as half.

Parts cost for a SunCube FemtoSat should run in the hundreds of dollars. A garage hobbyist could literally fly his or her own mission. One example is the solar panels. They aren’t available off the shelf in this size, so students cut them from scraps sold at a huge discount by manufacturers.

“That’s part of our major goal — space for everybody,” Thanga said. “That’s how you invigorate a field. ... Getting more people into the technology, getting their hands on it.”

The SunCube FemtoSat team.

Jekan Thanga (right), assistant professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, worked with a team of students, including graduate aerospace engineering students Mercedes Herreras-Martinez and Aman Chandra, over two years to develop the miniature satellites. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

SpaceTREx is a systems lab, so the team members were less interested in creating a tiny spacecraft than they were solving a problem: Can lots of little spacecraft do the job of a single large spacecraft?

Over the two years they’ve worked on the spacecraft, Thanga and his grad students have stayed focused on miniaturization with a vision toward creating disposable spacecraft for exploration.

“There’s a whole community out there interested in this idea of low-cost, swarms of disposable spacecraft,” Thanga said.

And they’re getting smaller and smaller, thanks to smartphone tech, which has miniaturized everything.

“We’re piggybacking on the wave of miniaturization,” Thanga said.  “We’re interested in tackling the space access problem. What if we can have students send experiments into space? With something as small as this, you can make mistakes and send again.”

Thanga sees the femtosat as a starting point for educators, researchers and scientists, and policy makers. He envisions femtosats being sold on Amazon one day. They will be able to be used for four main objectives:

  • STEM education: provide hands-on design, integration and testing experience for students from middle school to university age.
  • Miniaturized versions of current experiments.
  • Experiments with miniature centrifuges to perform artificial-gravity experiments, with fluids, solid particles and for biochemical and pharmaceutical research.
  • Imaging. “It’s like your own GoPro in space,” Thanga said. “That would give you quite the front-seat view in space.”

Thanga is working with Erik AsphaugAsphaug is also the Ronald Greeley Chair of Planetary Science., professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration to get a prototype into space next year with their Asteroid Origins Satellite mission, a space laboratory that will mimic how asteroids are formed.

“We can show the world we can fly in space,” Thanga said. “Being an active person involved in a space mission — it’s the next domain in exploration.”

The SpaceTREx Team will make available the SunCube FemtoSat standards document at or starting April 7.