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5/17/2011
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Tiny Satellites Ride On Shuttle Endeavour's Last Mission

Cornell University and Sandia National Laboratories developed the one-inch square devices to study space dust and collect data on solar winds.

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When Space Shuttle Endeavour took off on its final mission Tuesday morning, it carried on board tiny satellites that will be mounted on the International Space Station (ISS) to collect data about solar winds.

Developed by Cornell University in collaboration with Sandia National Laboratories, the three so-called "Sprite" satellites--about one-inch square, or approximately the size of a fingernail--will be subjected to harsh space conditions atop the ISS to see how they withstand them, according to the university. After a few years, they will then be returned to earth to determine the next steps for their use in research about the universe.

The satellites--the result of three years of research under the direction of Cornell professor Mason Peck--will collect data about the solar wind's chemistry, radiation, and particle impact from their position atop the Materials International Space Station Experiment (MISSE-8) pallet. Peck is associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and his project was tapped by NASA when the agency realized it had space available on the pallet about a year ago, according to the university.

The satellites' size and their ability to be self-propellant--like the space dust they study--is key to their ability to collect data, according to information about the project on Cornell's website.

Peck one day hopes to send mini-satellites based on these early prototypes to Saturn to study dust there, although "such a mission would definitely be many years off in the future," said Zac Manchester, a Cornell master's student who worked on the project, in an email. That project depends on the technology's ability to survive in the space environment, which the ISS test will determine.

Endeavour is on its way to the ISS on what is scheduled to be its final mission, the main objective of which is to deliver what's called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) and a series of spare parts to the ISS. The AMS is particle physics detector is designed to search for various types of unusual matter by measuring cosmic rays, according to NASA. Endeavor is expected to reach the space station Wednesday.

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