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Space is becoming increasingly accessible to more people thanks to plummeting costs, weight, and energy use of the technologies needed for freeflying satellites to sense and direct their orientation, communicate with the ground, and perform complicated computations in real time on orbit.

The dawn of this new age of DIY satellite making is in no small part due to the successful development of the PhoneSat at NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. The PhoneSat is as it sounds; a satellite avionics bus made of smartphone components and software. At the time of this writing, there have been 4 PhoneSat-based satellites in space, and two in preparation for launch aboard the SpaceX’s 3rd Cargo Resupply Services mission set to launch on April 14.

It is important to note that PhoneSats were initially intended to be open and publicly participatory, however that dream required much needed reforms of outdated and incoherent government export controls on satellite hardware and software. Undoubtedly these policy hindrances were among the reasons why many of the original PhoneSat team left NASA to found a secretive startup known as Cosmogia. In a matter of a few short but fully unleashed years, these satellite makers turned entrepreneurs have built and launched the largest flock of earth imaging satellites from the International Space Station.

Now known as Planet Labs, the excitement generated by the technology’s potential has drawn sizeable investments from big name Silicon Valley VCs such as Steve Jurvetson, Yuri Milner, and many others. Although Planet Lab’s business model remains to be proven, there is no doubt that these investments will continue to have major positive impacts on the DIY satellite marketplace. Planet Labs’ stated commitment and proven delivery for on-going release of hundreds of small satellites in effect reduces risk and uncertainty for their service providers, Nanoracks and SpaceFlight Services. Consequently Planet Labs becomes the ‘anchor tenant’ for rocket launch providers and space station small satellite deployers, and in turn ensures additional access by smaller satellite operators.

KickStarting Space

Despite these recent advances in the small spacecraft marketplace, one simple fact remains. Successful satellite development still requires money, and lots of it. Fortunately, Makers presently have turnkey crowdfunding platforms that make fundraising easier. There are several examples of satellites imminently scheduled or in flight that this type of financial support has made successful.

1) KickSat: On December 3, 2011 Zac Manchester’s KickSat became the the first successfully crowdfunded space project on Kickstarter. It was manifested for flight thanks to NASA’s Educational Launch of NanoSatellites (ELaNa) Program.  The 3U rectangular satellite is made up of two parts: an avionics bus based upon the NASA Ames PhoneSat, and the deployer that will release over 100 chipsats in a dual record setting deployment of the smallest satellites ever flown and for the greatest number of functional satellites in a single deployment.

Zac has been prolific in his communications with his backers about the mission’s status, through the publications of his open source software, hardware designs, groundstations, as well as on the KickSat Github Wiki and Groundstation GoogleGroups. Although delivered on-time, the mission has been subject to multiple delays due to NASA,  SpaceX, and even Air Force launch schedule slips.

Full disclosure: I work with Zac and colleague Andrew Filo on several aspects of the mission, having donated many hours of our private time and in support of the NASA Ames Office of the Chief Technologist.

2) The ArduSats were the second Kickstarter funded satellites on July 14, 2012 and the first to launch from the International Space Station on November 19, 2013. The first pair of ArduSats were delivered to the International Space Station via an agreement with NanoRacks. These satellites possess a set of custom Arduino boards and sensors that are intended to be accessible to paying customers who use their control center. While beacons for the ArduSat-1 and ArduSat-X have been detected by ground stations, there have been no public updates on the health of the satellites, nor have their been any obvious fulfillment of imagery and satellite control to the more generous Kickstarter backers. When I reached out to NanoSatisFi founder Peter Platzer for comment, he released the following statement:

We have been working very hard towards our goal of “500,000 kids in 5 years” and with great progress in the school community in the US as well as international. While actual use of the ArduSat was less than originally anticipated, engagement towards the overall goal of engaging STEM education through the use of CubeSats has been very strong and we are preparing a few major announcements on the product and team side towards the overall goal. The DIY community has been exceptionally helpful and supportive and continues to be a pillar of the success of ArduSat.

Full disclosure, I am a backer of this project at the $150 level. Although NanoSatisfi’s ability to raise funding may hint at some level of success, I am anxiously awaiting public disclosure on the status of the Kickstarter Backer’s rewards, which, according to the website: “included pre-ordering the chance to take up to 15 space pictures, steering the direction of the satellite and time of your choosing and have them delivered to your inbox.”

3) SkyCube: A project hosted by Tim DeBendictis’ popular smartphone app software Sky Safari. This project was the third successful KickStarter DIY Satellite project on September 12, 2012, and launched on February 27, 2014. It was also delivered to the International Space Station via procured opportunities with NanoRacks. Unfortunately, SkyCube has suffered an anomaly that has impacted its ability to regularly communicate with groundstations, resulting in a 27 day delay in confirming healthy operation of the avionics. The SkyCube crew is busily working to understand the issue, but Tim seemed to believe that there may have been a problem with the solar panel deployment mechanism. If the solar panel didn’t deploy, then the antennas would have a very narrow beam to transmit data back to the ground. As of publication, there have been no further links with SkyCube, although in it’s current crippled status it could remain on orbit for about one year.

Tim offers the following advice to Makers that are considering building their own small satellites.

Makers need to keep [satellite design] simple. Don’t reinvent Viking, Curiosity, or Voyager all at once. Start with a morse code beacon.

[Skycube] probably shouldn’t have had deployable solar panels. Moving parts have greater chances of failure.

There remain many non-technical problems for DIY satellite makers. Ground up/downlink communications are still extremely difficult. There is a big disconnect between the type of satellite communication we experience with television and telephone, and what small satellite makers have access to. There isn’t a common ground network, and prior efforts such as Carpcomm and GENSO never became as functional as they needed to be.

DIY satellite makers may become frustrated with the commercial launch providers. These companies are built to work with large organizations like government agencies and universities, and are still trying to figure out how to be responsive to small businesses. Be prepare for a culture shock on the delays of business communications.

Full disclosure; I am a $20 backer of SkyCube and am hopeful that when they resolve the satellite’s communications issues, that I’ll get my three pictures and 20 tweets! Tim has been extremely responsive and generous with his time and feedback.

Notable Crowdfunded Free Flyers Developed by Makers:

The three Kickstarter satellite pioneers of course have only inspired additional groups to try to leverage various crowdfunding platforms. As expected the market has dictated which Kickstarters will succeed and will not, but here is a brief list of winning DIY Satellite projects:

Resources for Launching DIY Satellites Into Space

So you have your satellite built and ready to go, but need a ride? For the time being you’ll have to get in line. As of right now there are three primary approaches to getting your satellite into space:

  • SpaceFlight Services: partners with launch providers (e.g. SpaceX) for rocket deployment or ISS deployment via Nanoracks
  • ISIS Space: works with primarily international launch providers (e.g. Dnepr) for rocket deployment
  • NASA CubeSat Launch Initiative: US government funded opportunity for free rides on various vehicles

Today’s market place for launch opportunities are fairly slim, but there is hope on the horizon. The NASA Launch Services program recently announced a contract award to Generation Orbit for their Go Launcher air launch system.  Similar efforts are being considered Virgin Galactic Launcher One program. While these two companies race to build their dedicated small sat launcher systems, the backlog of cubesats needing flight will only continue.

Hopefully this will change before the next #DIYSpaceWeek of Make Magazine!

 

Matthew F. Reyes

Founder of Exploration Solutions, Inc, distributor of the future in research, education & technology projects. Matthew supports NASA Ames Research Center and others in Silicon Valley as an independent contractor. Matthew is an occasional contributor to Make Magazine and a guest editor for #DIYSpaceWeek


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