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I visited the Citizen Astronaut and Space Hacker Workshop in Silicon Valley this weekend, hosted by Hacker Dojo, to see what’s new and exciting in DIY space stuff. This much is clear after just the first day: If you haven’t explored it before, now is the time to start looking in to sending your experiments into the mesosphere (and beyond).

With the usual players hung up on decades-old technology and NASA battling an onslaught of budget cuts, I think progress in space exploration is going to come from everyday people. Some experiments can be made with only $200 worth of off-shelf parts so the barrier is lower than ever. If you’re interested in getting your experiment (or self) in to space, the presenters at Space Hacker Workshop have gone over what to do and how to do it.

Looking for inspiration? check out the High Altitude Astrobiology Challenge from Citizens in Space. They’re offering up to $10,000 cash for the best organism collection project.

Gumstix™ module, photo via Advanced Materials Applications, LLC

Or maybe you’re interested it sending up a microcontroller? Study that. The people at Advanced Materials Applications are sending up Gumstix dev boards to evaluate their performance sans-atmosphere (PDF warning). It seems that running a computer in space presents all kinds of challenges besides getting it there to begin with.

You can send up video games, video cameras, or video phones – whatever excites you. The people who put on this event don’t just want to talk about it, they want to see what fascinating things YOU can come up with. And they want to help you make them happen.

One way they’re hoping to do that is with ArduLab. Infinity Aerospace wants to “be a major player in man’s transition to sustainable life off planet.” They want to open up space enough that kids around the world look at the sky and see something achievable. To that end, they’ve developed ArduLab, a low-cost, open source Space Station certified science facility based on the Arduino Mega. The Arduino platform means there’s already a ton of resources out there for people to develop around. But unlike a stock Uno, they’re Space Station certified – they’ve done all the work of making NASA happy so you can forget about it. They want people to get really excited about space. One of Co-Founder Manu Sharma’s goals is playing Angry Birds in real, outer space. Look for him at Maker Faire Bay Area this year.

Zero Gravity Growth Module

Mark S. Hoerber Jr. has developed a great project–an open source bioreactor for studying RNA changes in zero-gravity. He designed and built the project for this thesis and flew out to present it the day after walking the stage. He hopes to solve immune system problems caused by microgravity and develop stronger medicines. It’s Arduino-based, open source, and (for now) built without CNC tools. The man is a powerhouse; he stayed up 56 hours to attend the conference.

When you’re looking for how to fly your project, you should consider parabolic flights. They’re a good way to experiment with low gravity while still in the atmosphere (perhaps not the best, but usually better than dropping it from your roof). They can do 40 parabolas per flight, giving you around 30 seconds of weightlessness at a time.

If you need to measure your time in minutes, check out Citizens in Space. The site says it well, “Our goal is to enable ordinary people to fly in space as citizen astronauts (citizen space explorers) and to enable citizen scientists to fly experiments in space.” They’ve purchased room for 100 projects and 10 operators on the  XCOR Lynx spacecraft, which is currently being developed, and looking impressive.

There’s a lot else out there, and one of the ones to keep track of is Made in Space, who are developing the first 3D printer in space. As it turns out, all the FDM printers on the market rely on gravity, so his team has been working hard on their own custom equipment. Jason Dunn presented the project – so far he’s logged more than two hours total print time over 400+ parabolic flights, and still hasn’t thrown up.

Space exploration is alive. Sometimes when you hear the scale of the challenges involved, you can’t help but feel overwhelmed. The Citizen Astronaut and Space Hacker Workshop is one of the things that gives me hope for the future.

It’s an amazing event, and there’s more to come. Follow the workshop on Twitter at #makersinspace.

Sam Freeman

Sam Freeman

Raised in the galactic capital of Earth, Sam Freeman was destined to work for Make Labs – testing, designing, and breaking projects for MAKE.


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