Science & Research

Why Yes, It Is Time for Homemade Satellites


Rendering of the AAU CubeSat built by students from Aalborg University in Denmark.

Rendering of the AAU CubeSat built by students from Aalborg University in Denmark.

Here’s a fun fact: Over the next year a dozen or so tiny, homemade satellites will be launched into space. They will travel in low Earth orbit—140 to 600 miles up, roughly as high as the International Space Station—conducting a variety of experiments. With time they will drift toward earth until they reenter the atmosphere and incinerate into memories.

Sandy Antunes, a former NASA employee-turned professor, has documented the rise of these so-called pico satellites in a pair of books: DIY Satellite Platforms and Surviving Orbit the DIY Way. Antunes also runs a website called Project Calliope, which follows his quest to build a satellite. Antunes has paid $10,000 for a spot on a rocket that will carry his homemade satellite to space next year.

“The mission I am doing revolves around sensors to measure the electric and magnetic fields of low earth orbit,” Antunes says. “It is the area called the Ionosphere, where the aurora are generated. You have this beautiful glow, but I am going to gather the data as a MIDI sound file so anyone can hear the sounds and rhythm of space.”

Whatever makes you happy, brah.

The rise of private space companies such as SpaceX and Interorbital Systems, which will blast Antunes’s hardware into space, has made satellites affordable for the DIY set. Interorbital Systems, for example, sells an $8,000 TubeSat kit, which is literally a satellite in a can. This little device comes with enough hardware to capture videos, send e-mail from space, and conduct experiments around temperature, pressure, and radiation.

Antunes has built a CubeSat, which is basically a few motherboards arranged in a cube. He’s spent about $15,000 on the computing hardware and sensors. “I’ve made a few mistakes along the way that have raised the budget,” says Antunes, who by the way was the Maryland Science Center’s Science Person of the Month in May 2007. “Some things have melted apart and other things had to get remade.”

While Antunes will focus on capturing the sound of space, other pico satellite enthusiasts tend to work on projects that let amateur radio operators relay their signals through space repeaters and on projects using sensors to gather more data about space.

There are now a handful of Kickstarter projects tied to pico satellites. KickSat plans to send an army of postage stamp-sized satellites into space. “It’s a growing movement,” says Antunes. “Three years from now, any small college or technical school could do one. Students that want to be engineers will build small test rigs that go into space.”

What could possibly go wrong?

Vance_190
Vance is a technology writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in Palo Alto, Calif. Follow him on Twitter @valleyhack.

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