There's nothing quite like a rocket launch, or even a dramatic planetary discovery to get one fired up about space—and nowadays either of those two events could be carried out in the U.S. by NASA or one of the new breed of commercial space companies. But these billion-dollar efforts aren't all there is to be excited about in space tech innovation. Two Kickstarter projects currently in progress are trying to achieve some amazing goals on a tiny fraction of NASA's or even Elon Musk's budget.
CAT, the novel plasma thruster for cubesats, is a project with a $200,000 budget. It's a plan to build an actual microspacecraft powered by a newly proven micro plasma rocket. Though the craft is not much bigger than a bottle of wine, and the thrust put out by the plasma engine is fairly small, the design is nevertheless powerful enough to propel the planned spacecraft where few have gone before: Into deep space. The project is designed as a technology demonstrator, showing that meaningful science could be carried out by microsatellites at a fraction of the cost of typical spacecraft.
Pocket Spacecraft has a whole other idea. It's looking for £290,000 ($437,000) to build a whole fleet of tiny spacecraft. In this case each one is smaller and thinner than a CD, but is loaded with solar cells and electronics so it can transmit a custom message. Some will be tested in Earth orbit, others will—if all goes well—land on the moon. Backers of the project can either get their details etched onto one or, if they pay more, design the code that goes aboard.