Orbital Paper Airplane
4 August 2009
Would a paper airplane launched from orbit survive reentry? A little over a year ago there was a flurry of press about a Japanese plan to throw several paper airplanes off the ISS and track their return to Earth. The targeted mission was STS-127. However no airplanes were released on the recently concluded STS-127 flight and (as usual) there has been no follow-up by the press. Thus the question of whether a paper airplane can survive reentry is still open. This is not just a frivolous question, answering it might provide new options for dropping micro landers on other planets. Imagine the benefits of deploying one thousand tiny weather stations around Mars using this technique.
Surprisingly, we don't need NASA to test this. Interorbital Systems are offering to launch 0.75 kg payloads into Low Earth Orbit for $8,000. This would be perfect for a test of paper airplane reentry.
The tricky bit is getting data back. If the plane survives there's a ~70% chance that it will land somewhere in the ocean. And even a landing on dry land doesn't help much since the chances of someone finding it and mailing it back are slim. There are two solutions. The simple solution is to carpet-bomb your planet, releasing many paper airplanes in the hopes that one will make it back. Back of the envelope calculations indicate that one could launch 166 flat-packed airplanes within the 0.75 kg budget, from which one would expect 50 to reach land. The other solution is to add a battery or solar panel, GPS receiver and an Iridium uplink so that the plane can literally phone home with its location every few minutes. This way even if the plane is lost, one can tell how far it got. The question is whether these components would add too much mass for the plane.
If this sounds like a great MythBusters episode, I think you are right. But the significant feature is that this could be done by anyone, a high school club, a couple of friends or some guy in his garage. Welcome to the world of commercial space flight.
And you may notice the Google AdSense column which has appeared on the right hand side (just on news posts, not on the home page). I added it to become more familiar with the product (I work for Google after all) and I'm keeping it for now because the ads are often unintentionally funny. Don't know what the long-term future for it will be.