A Tale of Two Satellites



By now we all know there is a special place in my heart for Kickstarter projects that deal with anything that might end up in a science fiction plot. That’s because I want to live in the future.

There, I said it. Not just any future though, I’m pretty picky on this point. I want to live long enough to see us take baby steps to the stars and start to inhabit places beyond the earth in case the worst should someday happen to our lovely blue marble.

We’ve seen this blog graced with projects from the super fringey (space elevators) to the almost practical (space telescopes.) Today we will take a look at two projects currently funding that both fall between these two extremes, and take a look at what I think they are doing right and wrong.

The most expensive thing about space is getting there. Sure, the vacuum and the high amounts of radiation once you do aren’t exactly hospitable, but clever tool users that we are, we have figured out a way to triumph over most of that. The problem is that there is nothing in space to accomplish your mission (except the occasional opportune gravity well) except what you bring with you.

That’s where miniaturization comes into play. Throughout their history, satellites, useful tools that they are have continually done more with less. CubeSat’s embody this idea, and at present there are two on Kickstarter. Both deal with propulsion experiments to take this diminutive instrument economically beyond earth orbit. The first wants to test out a plasma thruster, and the second, a solar sail. Both projects are fairly credible looking, but believe it or not, they have for differences than similarities, even with everything I said above. The biggest differences are presentation, and price point.

When it comes to presentation, apparently plasma thrusters pwn solar sails; not only is their project page twice as long, with great explanations for what they are doing and why they are doing it, it also comes across as much more polished. The people over at CAT really have it together, discussing timelines, trajectories, reward levels and the science behind what they are doing. LunarSail, by contrast shows us pictures of some of the stuff they are working on, and tells us what they want to accomplish, but leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

All of this professionalism comes at a cost though – CAT is asking for almost 20 times the funding of LunarSail. Part of the discrepancy is that LunarSail is only asking for $12k, which by their own admission is inadequate to complete the task. This behavior is a problem in crowdfunding. People really need to stop low balling their projects and misrepresenting that fact. At the top of the project they say that they want to launch this satellite, and that if they get the money they can achieve that goal. Only once you get to the bottom of the page do they mention that the satellite will cost at least $50k (5 times the funding goal,) and that that figure doesn’t even include the cost of the solar sail or the launch.

Apparently they have always relied on the kindness of strangers.

CAT’s goal, by contrast seems complete and correct at $200k, though it might be a tad too optimistic in what is a achievable via crowd funding. Still, I am heartened by projects like this, and look forward to watching them both as they progress. I’m only backing one of them, but I’ll leave you to decide which one that is.

This entry was posted by David Winchester.

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