image title
ASU team worked for two years to shrink the costs of space exploration.
Swarms of femtosats could examine a damaged spacecraft from many angles.
"Space for everybody. That's how you invigorate a field," ASU scientist says.
April 6, 2016

ASU's SunCube FemtoSat will open space exploration to everyone, with launch costs as low as $3,000 for low-Earth orbit

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. To read more top stories from 2016, click here.

Going into space is now within your grasp.

A tiny spacecraft being developed at Arizona State University is breaking the barrier of launch cost, making the price of conducting a space mission radically cheaper.

“With a spacecraft this size, any university can do it, any lab can do it, any hobbyist can do it,” said Jekan Thanga, assistant professor in the School of Earth and Space ExplorationThe School of Earth and Space Exploration is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. and head of the Space and Terrestrial Robotic Exploration (SpaceTREx) Laboratory.

Thanga and a team of graduate and undergraduate students — including Mercedes Herreras-Martinez, Andrew Warren and Aman Chandra — have spent the past two years developing the SunCube FemtoSatFemtosatellite or “femtosat” is usually applied to artificial satellites with a wet massWet mass in this context means the weight of the spacecraft and any fuel it will use to propel itself around while in space. between 10 and 100 g (0.35 and 3.53 ounces).. It’s tiny — 3 cm by 3 cm by 3 cm. Thanga envisions a “constellation of spacecraft” — many eyes in many places. A swarm of them could inspect damaged spacecraft from many angles, for example.

The SunCube FemtoSat, designed at ASU.

The SunCube FemtoSat (top photo) and the
three-tiered version have a propulsion
system, data collection and communications
capability. The three-tiered one also has
space for a payload.

Photos by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Thanga and the School of Earth and Space Exploration will host a free kickoff event Thursday night introducing the SunCube, followed by a panel discussion with scientists and space-industry professionals on the logistics, opportunities and implications of this breakthrough technology. (Find event details here.)

Launch and launch-integration costs currently run into $60,000-$70,000 per kilo. The Russians, the Chinese and the Indians all charge about the same amount, too. That can get pretty pricey for a full-size satellite.

“These high costs put out of reach most educational institutions and individuals from the ability to build and launch their own spacecraft,” ASU's team wrote in a paper detailing the new model.

Launch expenses for the SunCube FemtoSat will cost about $1,000 to go to the International Space Station or $3,000 for flight into low-Earth orbit. (Earth escape will cost about $27,000.)

“That was a critical price point we wanted to hit,” Thanga said. When SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off later this year, Thanga expects costs to drop by as much as half.

Parts cost for a SunCube FemtoSat should run in the hundreds of dollars. A garage hobbyist could literally fly his or her own mission. One example is the solar panels. They aren’t available off the shelf in this size, so students cut them from scraps sold at a huge discount by manufacturers.

“That’s part of our major goal — space for everybody,” Thanga said. “That’s how you invigorate a field. ... Getting more people into the technology, getting their hands on it.”

The SunCube FemtoSat team.
Jekan Thanga (right), assistant professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, worked with a team of students, including graduate aerospace engineering students Mercedes Herreras-Martinez and Aman Chandra, over two years to develop the miniature satellites. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now


SpaceTREx is a systems lab, so the team members were less interested in creating a tiny spacecraft than they were solving a problem: Can lots of little spacecraft do the job of a single large spacecraft?

Over the two years they’ve worked on the spacecraft, Thanga and his grad students have stayed focused on miniaturization with a vision toward creating disposable spacecraft for exploration.

“There’s a whole community out there interested in this idea of low-cost, swarms of disposable spacecraft,” Thanga said.

And they’re getting smaller and smaller, thanks to smartphone tech, which has miniaturized everything.

“We’re piggybacking on the wave of miniaturization,” Thanga said.  “We’re interested in tackling the space access problem. What if we can have students send experiments into space? With something as small as this, you can make mistakes and send again.”

Thanga sees the femtosat as a starting point for educators, researchers and scientists, and policy makers. He envisions femtosats being sold on Amazon one day. They will be able to be used for four main objectives:

  • STEM education: provide hands-on design, integration and testing experience for students from middle school to university age.
  • Miniaturized versions of current experiments.
  • Experiments with miniature centrifuges to perform artificial-gravity experiments, with fluids, solid particles and for biochemical and pharmaceutical research.
  • Imaging. “It’s like your own GoPro in space,” Thanga said. “That would give you quite the front-seat view in space.”

Thanga is working with Erik AsphaugAsphaug is also the Ronald Greeley Chair of Planetary Science., professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration to get a prototype into space next year with their Asteroid Origins Satellite mission, a space laboratory that will mimic how asteroids are formed.

“We can show the world we can fly in space,” Thanga said. “Being an active person involved in a space mission — it’s the next domain in exploration.”

The SpaceTREx Team will make available the SunCube FemtoSat standards document at or starting April 7.


image title
Clinic meets need for both health care and caring in homeless populatoin.
ASU students from range of fields — from finance to nursing — staff the clinic.
April 8, 2016

Student Health Outreach for Wellness offers range of medical services for the underserved and — for the month of April — their pets, too

Monique Greco and Garnett Johnson might go hungry sometimes, but they make sure their dog Codi never does.

The homeless couple was visiting the Student Health Outreach for Wellness clinic (SHOW) in the heart of downtown Phoenix, which for the month of April also features pet-health services thanks to an ASU student’s initiative.

“Codi is everything to us,” said Greco about her 8-month-old pit bull, who was getting an exam, micro-chipped and a full set of vaccinations April 2.

“He’s our kid and we always put him first. If we’re hungry, the dog eats first.”

That sort of attitude goes a long way with Amber Howarth, who spearheads Wandering Paws, a mobile veterinarian clinic that has partnered with the Arizona Humane Society and services animals for the homeless and underserved.

Howarth, a 22-year-old ASU senior majoring in biological scienceHowarth is a student in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences., has a soft spot for animals. She’s developing a similar attitude towards the homeless population.

“I got involved with SHOW when my friend took me to one of their meetings and noting they serviced the homeless population. I thought, ‘Oh, I could add to this,’” said Howarth, who started the eight-week pilot program last month. “I’ve seen a lot of homeless people with pets and felt I could add a veterinary component to the clinic.”

A woman holds her dog at a pet clinic.
Shirley Gibson listens to veterinary advice during a free clinic on April 2 in downtown Phoenix. For the month of April, the Student Health Outreach for Wellness clinic offers pet-health services in addition to the human care it provides year-round. Top photo: Volunteer Lauren Meadows (left) examines Corry Stewart for an audiology checkup that same day. Photos by Ben Moffat/ASU Now


The addition is welcome, and may help bring more notice to the human side of the clinic.

SHOW is a student-run, interdisciplinary team of volunteers from Arizona’s three state universities: Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona. Its mission is to provide holistic, client-centered health care for the homeless and underserved and operates in collaboration with the ASU Foundation. More than 150 students from 16 professional programs across the three universities worked together with faculty and community partners on the design, implementation and evaluation of the SHOW program.

The clinic, which has been open every Saturday since last August, has served more than 900 patients in its eight months of operation. Recent evaluations estimate that more than 27,000 Arizona residents experience homelessness each year.

SHOW operates out of Health Care for Homeless on the 12-acre Human Services Campus in downtown Phoenix to combat the weekend gap in health services while giving students real-world experience. Services are free to any individual meeting the medical or social-service criteria.

Students are supervised by licensed clinical faculty from the university and community providers, which includes ASU’s Dr. Liz HarrellHarrell is a clinical associate professor in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation., program director and psychiatric nurse.

“In 2001, The Institute of Medicine reviewed United States health care and reported that it needed to fundamentally change in order to provide quality health care,” Harrell said. “If you don’t have an employer that offers health care or you’re out of a job, you’re also out of luck. Those struggling with social disparities such as the homeless experience even poorer quality of care.”

Harrell said the World Health Organization (WHO) came up with three recommendations to improve health outcomes in this country: focus on the entire health-care population, improve cost and improve the patient experience. The WHO suggested interdisciplinary, or team-based care, was the best way to tackle all three.

“As educators we thought, ‘If this is the direction that health care is heading, then we need to teach that model,’” Harrell said. “The other question was, ‘How do you do that?’ SHOW really filled that practice place, and our patients are receiving a level of care they’ve never been privileged to have before and that’s incredibly meaningful.”

SHOW’s clinical health students range from nursing, social work, nutrition, medicine and pharmacy to audiology, speech pathology, physical therapy, business, journalism and computer science. They are responsible for the assessment, diagnosis, treatment and follow-up care delivery for patients, and have implemented many innovative ideas in their program, including an electronic whiteboard filled with a patient’s information, combination of professionals from different medical fields, and a greeting from a “patient navigator.”

Medical personnel examine a man's hearing.

ASU clinical professor of audiology
Ingrid McBride (left) and volunteers
Lauren Meadows, Colton Clayton
and Ashley Geske consult with
Corry Stewart during a checkup
April 2.

“The navigator is the patient’s health advocate and stays with them through their entire visit,” said Sukhdeep Singh, SHOW student director and ASU senior in finance premedSingh is a student in the W. P. Carey School of Business and in Barrett, The Honors College.. “They are willing to get on a personal level with the patients. When I was a navigator, I bonded with patients by talking about my favorite food — Chinese. We don’t want this to be a demeaning environment because our goal is to treat them as human beings.”

That’s exactly how Taline Aydinian, a 21-year-old exercise and wellness junior, connects with her patients — on the human level.

“A lot of patients have told me they were abused when they were kids and other sad stuff that I imagine contributed to them being homeless and having health issues,” Aydinian said. “When they receive respect, they are more willing to open up to you because they don't get it that often. Everybody here in the clinic respects them and treats them as human beings.”

Twenty-two-year-old patient navigator Erika Alcantera, who is a public service and public policy majorAlcantera is a student in the College of Public Service and Community Solutions. at ASU, said she was initially weary about interacting with the homeless but has overcome that fear.

“I know now they’re just human beings and won’t bother you or do you any harm,” she said. “They’re very grateful for what we do, even the littlest things.”

“When other providers come here on the weekends to check us out, it just clicks for them. I heard one health professional say, ‘I’ve been practicing for 20 years, and I’ve never seen it done this way. And when I go back to the hospital, I’ll think about doing it this way.’”
— Sukhdeep Singh, SHOW student director and ASU senior

Patient Corry Stewart was grateful for the service he received recently. He came in for a routine wellness checkup, and the four-member team detected something out of the ordinary.

“They checked my blood pressure, sight, vision and hearing, and all was good until a doctor came and put a stethoscope up to my chest,” said Stewart, who is a pawn broker in Phoenix. “They told me that I have an irregular heartbeat. But other than that, I think I’m pretty healthy.”

The future of the clinic is also looking healthy, and many health-care organizations are looking at SHOW as a pioneer model, including the National Data Repository, which is collecting information from the clinic and dispensing it to interested clients.

“We get calls from people in other states curious about what we’re doing here and what is working. When other providers come here on the weekends to check us out, it just clicks for them,” said Singh. “I heard one health professional say, ‘I’ve been practicing for 20 years, and I’ve never seen it done this way. And when I go back to the hospital, I’ll think about doing it this way.’ It’s interesting to see them buy into this model.”

Harrell said SHOW is succeeding because the clinic is a “flattened hierarchy” where the students’ opinions matter just as much as the supervisors.

“Part of the problem in health care is that it’s traditionally been physician-focused, with that physician as the head of the team. No one person knows all,” Harrell said. “Part of interdisciplinary care is decision making is shared equally amongst the disciplines allowing for a more holistic care plan, thus improved quality care and greater provider satisfaction. We work very hard to make sure everybody is equal.”

And all things being equal, SHOW is emerging as a new health-care model around the country.

“Because SHOW isn’t constrained with the typical red tape associated with health care, we can try new ideas when it comes to patient care,” Harrell said. “We all know the recommendation is for us to do this, but who else can do this?

“The answer is ‘We can do this!’”


Wandering Paws will operate 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturdays through April. The human clinic, SHOW, runs 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays year-round. Both are at the Human Services Campus, 230 S 12th Ave., Phoenix.