Wouldn’t it be cool to build and launch your own satellite? Well this could be a real possibility… seriously and it’s due to a ‘nano-satellite’ standard that has emerged from original work done by California Polytecnic State University and Stanford University in 1999. The objective of this standard was to produce a design specification that would enable the development and launch of useful, working satellites at budgets of around $65,000 to $80,000. The first of these satellites were launched aboard a Russian Eurockot flight in 2003 and placed in a Sun Synchronous Orbit.
CubeSats are pretty small. The standard 1U size is 10cm x 10cm x 10cm with a weight limit of just over a kilogram and it is possible to build them in 1U, 2U or 3U sizes. Despite their small size, CubeSats are able to do some pretty impressive things. Attitude can be simply controlled by using the Earth’s magnetic field to orientate cameras, communications can be established to ground stations using UHF uplinks and VHF downlinks and GPS modules allow the satellite to be tracked by ground stations. CubeSats have been used in earthquake research (QuakeSat – although the science behind it has been considered dubious by some!), cosmic dust detection (PLUME) and atmospheric research (UNICubeSAT and Politech.1).
CubeSat developent has now become even easier courtesy of technology firm Pumpkin Inc and their CubSat Kit (http://www.cubesatkit.com/). Pumpkin are able to provide in kit form, all of the mechanical parts required to meet the CubeSat design specification along with a host of useful boards and tools including a modular chassis system, motherboards, development boards, communications, power, storage and Salvo Pro RTOS multitasking, real time operating system software.
Now $65,000 to $80,000 may seem like peanuts in the world of space exploration however this is still a pretty hefty price tag for the rest of us. The solution may be at hand though and comes in the relatively new phenomenon of crowdfunding.
For those out there that may not have come across this before, crowdfunding is where individuals and groups create project pages on websites such as Kickstarter (http://www.kickstarter.com) and pitch for funding for anything from medicine for their pet dogs to finance for independent movies.
Sure enough, it didn’t take long before CubeSats and crowdfunding were combined and in September 2012, astronomer and MIT graduate Tim DeBenedictis successfully raised over $116,000 to fund SkyCube, a three month CubSat mission that will enable investors to take photos and send messages from space. The satellite has now been built and Tim and his team are now working on an app called Satellite Safari that will allow people to track SkyCube and various other satellites from their iPhones. SkyCube is expected to be launched from Cape Canaveral aboard a Falcon 9 rocket in April this year.
So what does all this mean to those of us with a geeky streak? Well to me this represents a real democratisation of space experimentation. Who among us doesn’t see the appeal of looking up at the night sky and knowing that we have our very own satellite up there? Of course, I’ve no idea whatsoever of what I’d want the satellite to do, but to be honest that doesn’t bother me in the slightest, in fact I’d go so far as to say it really doesn’t matter.
Some things you do just because you can!