When space shuttle Endeavour blasted off Monday morning, it carried three tiny satellites — each the size of a postage stamp.
The slim, 1-inch-square satellites on NASA's next-to-last shuttle mission are to be mounted on the outside of the International Space Station to collect data measuring the harsh conditions of space.
Mason Peck, a Cornell University professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering who leads the project, said the bite-size satellites, dubbed Sprite, are prototypes. The mini-satellites are to remain in space for a few years, then be removed and brought back to Earth.
In the future, Peck envisions launching waves of the little satellites simultaneously to capture information about space.
"Their small size allows them to travel like space dust," he said in a statement. "Blown by solar winds, they can 'sail' to distant locations without fuel."
Building, launching and maintaining full-size satellites costs millions of dollars. These small, light spacecraft could bring costs down, he said.
"We're actually trying to create a new capability and build it from the ground up," Peck said. "We want to learn what's the bare minimum we can design for communication from space."