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DIY Satellite builders have been at it since 1961

DIY satellite builders have been at it since 1961. Left: AMSAT’s amateur-built OSCAR-1 satellite, in orbit since the Kennedy Administration. Right: CubeSats being deployed from the International Space Station, 2012.

It’s been four years since MAKE Volume 24, the first “DIY Space Issue” went to press, when in 2010 we first  presented readers with a glimpse of the start of a new “Maker” era of space satellite development. This new era was being driven by the invention of smaller and smaller “CubeSats” and the realization that compact, high-powered computers and sensors such as those found in smartphones were providing incredible new opportunities for the development of satellites.

It is now 2014, and the space satellite is still firmly in the hands of the maker community. During these four years, satellites made of smartphone parts and even Arduinos have flown and burned up on fiery reentry to earth. New companies now exist to accept makers’ payloads and launch them into space. Today, multiple fleets of satellites stand ready to be deployed in constellations never before dreamed of being possible, much less affordable.

Even with the advent of inexpensive technology ‘repurposed’ for satellite development, space exploration is still hard and it is still expensive. Some DIY satellite developers have been able to leverage crowdfunding platforms to help overcome the financial barriers to entry, a fact that has not gone by unnoticed by the venture capital community seeking to turn these makers’ projects into the next big profitable investments.

But Makers crowdfunding satellites actually isn’t a new phenomenon. Dennis Wingo, guest speaker at the 2010 Maker Faire Bay Area and mentor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville Space Club, points out that his students built and flew SEDSAT-OSCAR-33 in 1998 and used the Internet before the existence of the World Wide Web to collaborate and raise funds. He noted that

“the very first non-government satellite was built by volunteers using what we today would call crowdfunding and distributed engineering. The history of innovation in crowdfunding and distributed engineering began over a half century ago here in Silicon Valley and San Francisco.”

Dennis points me to a 1962 article by United Press International that highlighted the success of the first crowdfunded, crowdsourced satellite ever launched, OSCAR-1:

Association Chairman Mirabeau C. Towns Jr., a rocket engineer from Saratoga, Calif., witnessed the launching at Vandenberg. He said the satellite was designed and built by San Francisco Bay area radio amateurs, most of them associated with electronics firms.

“The idea was conceived a little more than a year ago,” Towns said. “Getting government approval proved to be pretty simple.”

 A volunteer effort was needed to absorb the cost of the transmitter, estimated at about $18,000. Pieces of equipment were donated by amateur radio operators from throughout the country.

Adjusted for inflation, $18,000 in 1962 dollars would cost $136,811.77 in 2013; dollar amounts well within reach of even modest Kickstarters today.

We must recognize however that satellites are but the most recent expressions of makers’ explorations of outer space. My friend, Dr. Alex MacDonald duly observed that “for hundreds of years prior to the Space Age, we explored space through the telescopes.”  He continues to point out that:

… even before the mid-twentieth century, space exploration projects of comparative relative magnitude to small-to-mid-sized robotic spacecraft were relatively common. [For] most of its history, space exploration in America has been principally funded by private sources. The re-emergence of this trend, in both astronomy and space exploration more generally, may be robust and long-lasting.

It is with that said that we can point to a great irony that NASA is returning to humanity’s space exploration roots as a means to try to save it from the destruction of unseen asteroids. The Agency is leveraging its tradition of inspiring and facilitating makers through its newest sets of challenges to build robotic telescopes to hunt asteroids and optimize code to find asteroids in existing space imagery.

DIY Space is yet another example among many in the Maker Movement where old ideas are made new thanks to wider access to lower-cost technologies. Over the course of the next few days, in celebration of the space geek’s favorite holiday, Yuri’s Night, we’ll not only highlight some of the Maker Movement’s forays into space, but also future opportunities for you to explore space yourself.

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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