KalamSat, the lightest and smallest satellite

KalamSat, the lightest and smallest satellite, designed by an 18-year-old boy from Tamil Nadu in India, is a femtosatellite.

Rifath Sharook, from the town of Pallapatti, broke a global space record by launching the lightest satellite in the world. The term femtosatellite or femtosat is usually applied to artificial satellites with a wet mass below one hundred grams. Like picosatellites, some designs require a larger “mother satellite” for communication with ground controllers. It is named after A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, an Indian politician and aerospace scientist who served as the 11th President of India from 2002 to 2007.

KalamSat, the lightest and smallest satellite

The main challenge was to design an experiment to be flown in outer space which would fit into a four-metre cube weighing exactly sixty-four grams. “We did a lot of research on different cube satellites all over the world and found ours was the lightest” said Rifath Sharook. “We obtained some of the components from abroad and some are indigenous” he added.

The KalamSat satellite, lighter than a smartphone, the first-ever to be manufactured by 3D printing, was selected through a competition called “Cubes in Space”, jointly organised by NASA and “I Doodle Learning”. Cubes in Space is “the only global competition, offered at no cost, for students 11-18 years of age to design and propose experiments to launch into space or a near space environment on a NASA sounding rocket and zero-pressure scientific balloon”.

The weight of the probe, composed of 3D printed reinforced carbon fibre polymer, is sixty-four grams and it is fitted in a three and a half centimetres cube. The tiny probe, the first time an Indian student’s experiment was flown by NASA, was operated only for less than twelve minutes to demonstrate the performance of 3D printed carbon fibre in the micro-gravity environment of outer space and provide impetus to plan economical space missions in future.

KalamSat was launched by NASA along with several other experiments on Terrier Orion sounding rocket on June 22, 2017 from Wallops Flight Facility (WFF) in Virginia, a rocket launch site to support science and exploration missions for NASA and other Federal agencies. The Terrier Orion sounding rocket is a combination of the Terrier booster rocket with the Orion rocket used as a second stage. This spin stabilized configuration is most often used by the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who operate out of the Wallops Flight Facility for sounding rocket operations. The system supports payloads ranging from ninety to three-hundred-and-sixty kilograms, and is capable of achieving altitudes as high as two hundred kilometres. The probe was launched by a sub-orbital spaceflight.

The satellite’s legal status

What is KalamSat’s legal status? What is the lightest and smallest satellite’s legal status? The term “space object” is important in Space Law and Public International Law. This notion will become of more practical importance with the expansion of space activities (International Space Station, space tourism, Moon, Mars…). Is a satellite a space object?

Let’s recall that a space object causing damage triggers international third-party liability under the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (entered into force in September 1972). Article I (d) of which enounces that “the term space object includes component parts of a space object as well as its launch vehicle and parts thereof”. Its Article II adds that “A launching State shall be absolutely liable to pay compensation for damage caused by its space object on the surface of the Earth or to aircraft in flight”.

A space object requires, thanks to the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (entered into force in September 1976), registration. Article II of which states that “When a space object is launched into Earth orbit or beyond, the launching State shall register the space object by means of an entry in an appropriate registry which it shall maintain. Each launching State shall inform the Secretary-General of the United Nations of the establishment of such a registry”.

Finally, the term space object effectively triggers application of much of both the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (entered into force in October 1967) and the Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space (entered into force in December 1968). Article VII of the first declares that “Each State Party to the Treaty that launches or procures the launching of an object into outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and each State Party from whose territory or facility an object is launched, is internationally liable for damage to another State Party to the Treaty or to its natural or juridical persons by such object or its component parts on the Earth, in air space or in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies”.

Article 5 of the latter states that “1. Each Contracting Party which receives information or discovers that a space object or its component parts has returned to Earth in territory under its jurisdiction or on the high seas or in any other place not under the jurisdiction of any State, shall notify the launching authority and the Secretary-General of the United Nations. 2. Each Contracting Party having jurisdiction over the territory on which a space object or its component parts has been discovered shall, upon the request of the launching authority and with assistance from that authority if requested, take such steps as it finds practicable to recover the object or component parts. 3. Upon request of the launching authority, objects launched into outer space or their component parts found beyond the territorial limits of the launching authority shall be returned to or held at the disposal of representatives of the launching authority, which shall, upon request, furnish identifying data prior to their return”.

Of course, because of orbital decay, this satellite no bigger than a smartphone won’t return to Earth. It will disintegrate after a few years because of Earth’s atmosphere. Article VII of the OST declares that “Each State Party to the Treaty that launches or procures the launching of an object into outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and each State Party from whose territory or facility an object is launched, is internationally liable for damage to another State Party to the Treaty or to its natural or juridical persons by such object or its component parts on the Earth, in air space or in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies”. As a conclusion, we can affirm that satellites are space objects and therefore, so is KalamSat, the lightest and smallest satellite. That is what we can say about KalamSat, the lightest and smallest satellite.