It's a big week for small spacecraft.
First, NASA's 3-kg GeneSat-1 is on orbit and looking perfect as it begins its mission of studying the growth of bacteria in microgravity.
Today, the Space Shuttle will begin deploying a series of microspacecraft for three missions. The Shuttle has not been used much recently as a satellite launcher, since the cargo capacity is usually taken up by equipment for the International Space Station. Microsatellites, though, can take advantage of the small amount of leftover capacity on ISS missions.
The first satellite to be deployed is the smallest. The Microelectromechanical System-Based PICOSAT Inspector (MEPSI), smaller than a coffee can, will demonstrate its ability to maneuver in space and inspect larger vehicles. Next out will be the Radar Fence Transponder (RAFT), built by midshipmen at the US Naval Academy to test space surveillance and communications protocols. The final microsatellite mission, the atmospheric neutral density experiment (ANDE), is a Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) project using two satellites.
COMMENT: Microspacecraft are not the answer for everything we want to do in space. They cannot, for example, handle high-resolution imaging or bulk communications traffic. However, tight budgets for space hardware and high launch costs, combined with steady advances in miniaturizing space technology, guarantee them a bright future.