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With a Lego NXT system and $500 in parts, a team of International Space University students built this fully functioning prototype satellite, shown by NASA’s Chris Boshuizen (left) and Will Marshall.

With a Lego NXT system and $500 in parts, a team of International Space University students built this fully functioning prototype satellite, shown by NASA’s Chris Boshuizen (left) and Will Marshall.

It’s often said that there’s nothing you can’t make at home, and even the final frontier is not too remote from the hands of a well-equipped group of DIYers.

Amateur groups have been launching their own satellites into space for 40 years. Today, cheap technologies and novel launch strategies are helping DIYers build and launch more satellites than ever.

The most successful amateur satellite is AMSAT-OSCAR 7 (Figure B), which has been in orbit for 36 years and remains semi-operational to this day. Originally launched as an experiment on new types of transceivers, it’s still able to send, receive, store, and forward messages.

Let’s take a look at the present and future of amateur satellite building.

AMSAT-OSCAR 7 has been orbiting Earth since 1974.

AMSAT-OSCAR 7 has been orbiting Earth since 1974.

AMSAT and the OSCAR Spacecraft

AMSAT (the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation) is a group of organizations that design, build, and operate amateur satellites. AMSAT organizations from 23 countries have launched their own “orbiting satellites carrying amateur radio” (OSCARs for short). The first of these was launched in 1961, a mere four years after the launch of Sputnik 1.

AMSAT spacecraft range in size from 2kg up to 50kg and have become more sophisticated over the years. To date, most have been placed in orbit around the Earth, but AMSAT even has guidelines for spacecraft that can travel to other places in the solar system. AMSAT-DL in Germany is planning the GO-Mars/P5A spacecraft to be launched to Mars.

AMSAT pioneered the launching of amateur satellites as secondary payloads on commercial rockets by filling the empty space around the larger satellite that was paying for the ride. While it’s not always free, it’s still a very cost-effective way of getting something to space.

PharmaSat, developed by NASA Ames Research Center and launched in 2009, is a three-unit CubeSat to study antifungal drugs in microgravity.

PharmaSat, developed by NASA Ames Research Center and launched in 2009, is a three-unit CubeSat to study antifungal drugs in microgravity.

Tubes and Cubes

The pioneering satellites of AMSAT were designed and built from scratch, but these days there are standardized nanosatellite designs and even starter kits. TubeSats and CubeSats are leading the way with standards for size and delivery to space.

CubeSats are based on a 10cm-cubed design originally developed for universities. They can be connected into units three cubes long, and they’re launched from a rectangular “peapod,” pushed out into space like peas squeezed from a pod.

CubeSat missions have carried a variety of high- tech gadgetry, including high-resolution cameras and even instruments to measure earthquakes. NASA recently launched its own CubeSat mission, PharmaSat, to examine the effectiveness of antifungal drugs in space. NASA hopes to do more cost-effective microgravity research this way.
A CubeSat kit to build a functioning satellite could cost between $5,000 and $300,000, but you can build one much cheaper with some clever planning.

Similar to CubeSats, TubeSats are delivered from a long cylinder attached to the upper stage of the rocket. A TubeSat kit from Interorbital Systems costs only $8,000, including launch! According to the company’s website, “Planet Earth has entered the age of the Personal Satellite.” I want mine!

A fully functioning satellite prototype built from Lego Mindstorms NXT.

A fully functioning satellite prototype built from Lego Mindstorms NXT.

Lego and Smartphones

At NASA Ames Research Center we’re trying to discover how cheaply we can build a spacecraft. With the Lego Mindstorms NXT system and about $500 in other parts, we built a fully functioning
prototype satellite.

We’re also very interested in smartphones, which are bristling with sensors and have onboard computers more powerful than nearly every satellite ever put into space. In fact, a smartphone has nearly all the systems of a spacecraft except solar panels and propulsion! With a bit more work, we think we’ll be launching the first cellphone-based satellite one day (see page 74).

Getting Up There

While you might be able to build a functioning satellite for very little money, there are still two problems to overcome. The first is finding a launch on some kind of rocket. And if you end up sharing a ride, the next problem is convincing the operator that your satellite is not a danger to the much more expensive one they’re putting on the rocket.

To reduce the risk of damaging either the rocket or the other spacecraft, your satellite needs to go through extensive testing to ensure that it’s safe. This will include putting it through extreme hot and cold cycles, subjecting it to simulated vacuum in a large vacuum chamber, and shaking it aggressively on a vibration table. If your satellite can survive this punishing regime and still function as you designed it, then it should also survive the rocket ride and operate in space for some time.

Getting a launch for your object is probably the most expensive part of doing anything in space. You could volunteer for an AMSAT project, and we’ve already mentioned TubeSats, which offer a complete delivery service. If you’re building your satellite through a university or other educational group, NASA’s Project ELaNa (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites) can get a CubeSat into space for around $30,000. Andrew’s Space is a firm that brokers commercial launches for SpaceX’s exciting Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 rockets. While these launches cost more than ELaNa, the rockets can carry much heavier satellites — anything from 1kg to 300kg!

If you want to try your satellite out but not necessarily have it in space for months, you might consider putting it on a short-duration high-altitude sounding rocket. Many amateur groups launch rockets to over 10km in altitude. Another option is a high-altitude balloon ride. Balloons are much more gentle, and can take your experimental satellite up to 30km without much hassle. You then have plenty of time to get it settled in, started up, and ready to do what it was designed for. And if dropping it was part of the plan, you should get at least 30 seconds of free-fall time from that height!

Spacebridge is an offshoot of the San Francisco Bay Area hackers group Noisebridge. They’re developing their space voyages using balloon launches and smartphones, but hope to be soon launching their own rockets. And why couldn’t you?