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ThumbSats: Smallest-ever satellites to carry human ashes to space

Joseph Flaig

Credit: Peter Searle
Credit: Peter Searle

The legacies of recently deceased people will live on by enabling thousands of innovative experiments in space with their mortal remains.

“Ultimate memorial service” provider Celestis has signed a contract with ThumbSat, a British microsatellite company, to launch the ashes of up to 2,000 people into orbit over 10 years. During their “final ride to their destiny,” the deceased will also help provide access to space to the next generation of scientists and engineers.

The satellites measure 48 by 48mm, and are much smaller than the better-known CubeSats: 24 ThumbSats fit on a CubeSat frame. Experiments on the ThumbSats will use sensors such as magnetometers, which measure the Earth’s magnetic field, and other units like GPS modules or cameras to monitor space debris. The satellites’ missions will be quite short – only six to eight weeks.

The Celestis deal heavily subsidises the cost of ThumbSat missions, driving the price down from £15,000 to about £4-5,500. The incredibly low cost for entire missions – including the thumb-sized satellite, launch and deployment – will throw open the doors for schools to launch their own experiments into space, said ThumbSat founder Shaun Whitehead.

“The people who are passing on are inspiring future generations,” Whitehead said to PE. As well as the deceased paying for most of a mission, 1-4g of their ashes will actually be built into the structure of the satellites through 3D printing and honeycomb structures.

“They physically contribute to the structure and thermal performance of the ThumbSat,” said Whitehead. “It’s not just a frivolous flight, our ‘passengers’ are effectively going up, doing something.”

The ultimate parting gift for those who love space (Credit: Thumbsat)

The ultimate parting gift for those who love space (Credit: Thumbsat)

Shooting stars

The deceased effectively becomes a crew member, Charles Chafer, chief executive and co-founder of Celestis, told PE. The flights are “uniquely compelling,” he added. “They are amazing ways to celebrate the life of someone who has always loved space, longed to go to space, been interested in astronomy and science fiction or just was an adventurer.”

As people approach the end of their lives, they are happy knowing they will contribute to furthering knowledge, said Chafer.

The company aims to launch the satellites in January aboard a Rocket Lab Electron vehicle from New Zealand. A four-satellite mission for the Mexican Space Agency on an Ariane rocket will follow.

Even without Celestis subsidies, ThumbSat missions are far cheaper than larger CubeSat missions, which might cost upwards of £20,000 for the satellite alone. The result is truly “democratising space,” said Whitehead. “Our strapline is ‘unlocking space for everyone’. For too long space has been elitist.”

After reaching the typical low orbits, ThumbSats will remain in space for six weeks as data is gathered. Then, as the experiments end and the crew complete their final missions, the satellites will burn up on re-entering the atmosphere.

“You basically become a shooting star,” said Whitehead. “Some of you, your particles, will remain in space: you’ll go back to the universe.”

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