PhoneSat 1.0 during a high-altitude balloon test.

Want a Free Trip to Orbit With NASA?

One of the initiatives introduced by President Obama today at the White House Maker Faire is an “announcement of opportunity” from NASA for CubeSat developers—intended to broaden the reach of existing programs to people who have no previous experience building hardware intended for space. The call is aimed directly at the 21 “rookie states” with no CubeSat presence, and will leverage the Space Grant network of colleges and universities.

There have been people building amateur satellites since 1960. The first amateur satellite, AMSAT‘s OSCAR 1, was flown as a secondary payload to Discoverer 36 onboard a Thor-Agena rocket in December 1961—just four years after the launch of the world’s first satellite, Sputnik I, by the Soviet Union.

A scale model of the OSCAR 1 satellite—built by the members of Project OSCAR—housed at the National Air and Space Museum.

A scale model of the OSCAR 1 satellite—built by the members of Project OSCAR—housed at the National Air and Space Museum.

Every launch vehicle has ballast onboard used to trim the flight characteristics—intended to move the centre of mass towards the middle of the rocket—usually the weight is a piece of lead or something similar. The OSCAR 1 took advantage of the fact and was designed in a wedge shape to fit exactly in place of one of the weights used to balance the payload in the rocket stage. It was operational for 22 days, broadcasting “Hi” from its onboard beacon before reentering the Earth’s atmosphere

Dreamed up in the late 90’s the CubeSat—an open source architecture that lets you pack anything you want into the 10cm × 10cm × 10cm cube so long as it weighs less than 1kg—has become an accepted standard in the launch business, and makes use of exactly the same space in the rocket. But these days the microsatellites fly on most launches, and NASA has a mandate that every launch vehicle they charter has the ability to deploy them, providing the opportunity for makers to build small satellites, and to demonstrate new innovative technologies and conduct scientific research in a space environment.

PhoneSat 2.5 launched onboard the SpaceX CRS-3 mission to the ISS.

PhoneSat 2.5 launched onboard the SpaceX CRS-3 mission to the ISS.

Deployed in orbit from a standard launcher—called a P-POD—which uses springs to push the microsatellites away from the primary launch vehicle, the orbit your satellite gets is entirely determined by what your rocket provider has sold you. Most likely your satellite will enter a standard 250km or so nearly circular orbit, either equatorial or polar. Such an orbit will last—because of drag by the tenuous ionosphere—somewhere between 3 and 16 weeks before the satellite will reenter the atmosphere and burn up.

“There is a big push for the miniaturization of satellites. The CubeSat classification is such that a 1U CubeSat is just 10cm cubed, a 2U is 10x10x20cm, and a 3U is 10x10x30cm—you get the idea. That really isn’t much room for all of the control systems, electrical systems, propulsion systems, etc., and don’t forget to leave room for the payload science. The use of Arduino, cell phones and custom miniaturized systems are in high demand. The neat thing is that the cost to build a satellite has shrunk dramatically. College students are building them as senior design projects. We hope to see a reduction in launch costs and an increase in launch opportunities so that all of these satellites can fly their science.” — Sam Ortega, manager of the Centennial Challenges Program at NASA‘s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL

There is a huge range of CubeSat builds from simple beacons, much like OSCAR 1, built by schools and amateurs in their garages, to much more complicated spacecraft testing cutting-edge technologies like new types of rocket propulsion, or even interplanetary spacecraft launched towards Venus.

NASA even uses the CubeSat themselves as part of its Small Spacecraft Technology Program, where they’re experimenting building satellites using consumer-grade, off-the-shelf technologies like smartphones and the Arduino platform. SkyBox Imaging—recently acquired by Google for $500 million—also makes use of the standard CubeSat form factor, as does PlanetLabs who own and operate the largest constellation of Earth imaging satellites in the world.

So if you’re thinking about building a CubeSat, and you’re in one of those 21 “rookie” states, then look out for the Announcement of Opportunity later in the year from NASA.

Alasdair Allan

Alasdair Allan is a scientist, author, hacker and tinkerer. In the past he has mesh networked the Moscone Center, caused a U.S. Senate hearing, and contributed to the detection of what was—at the time—the most distant object yet discovered.

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