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TubeSat makes space your personal laboratory. You build a satellite the size of a large soup can, get it launched into a 310km Earth orbit moving 17,000 miles an hour, and talk to it via ham radio a few times a day for 1–3 months. Smile as you reflect on your new skills in surface-mount soldering, amateur radio (you’ll need a license), spacecraft control, solar power, and, yes, rocket science.

Even with a kit, building a satellite requires significant time and skill-building. You’ll need to order (or make) two-layer PCBs, and master reflow soldering to attach the fragile solar cells. But the manual is clear, you don’t need much math or science, and an online community shares techniques. I’m adding an ion engine to my TubeSat, which brings high-voltage electronics, micro-machining, and calculus into the mix.

The kit and launch cost $8,000 for academics and citizen scientists. (A larger CubeSat kit is $19,125, and Arduino versions of both are in development.) Success isn’t guaranteed — rockets fail, space radiation breaks electronics, and launch stresses can shake a satellite apart. (Test yours in a near-space balloon first.)

My TubeSat launches in spring 2012, and one thing’s for sure: when it’s all done, and the satellite burns up, I’ll never look at a shooting star the same way again.


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